One more thought from FanFest before we move forward and take a look at what the Mariners are facing this spring.
On Sunday in the final hours of the event I was sitting in the dugout when Felix popped up the steps shortly before he was to do his Dugout Dialog session. It was almost like one of his regular season starts. I was sitting in almost the same spot I would be before a game and he bounded up the stairs the same way he would if he were heading out to the bullpen to warm up. There was a group of Mariners personnel around and many had noted that they couldn't believe all Felix had done the past week for the team and the fans. When he came into the dugout the interaction between Felix and the others there was warm and comfortable. Someone commented that he looked exhausted. He let out a big sigh and dropped his head in a mock collapse. "Nine innings, Felix," I said. He looked up and with a headshake and a look of mock disgust he said "Nah, this is nothing. This is nothing."
Two full days of interaction with the fans, hours of signing, numerous times in the week where he had to be on stage and "on" may not seem like a lot but it shouldn't be taken for granted. Felix isn't doing this because someone is twisting his arm to do it. He is doing it because he wants to. This is his team. He has taken ownership in it. He took ownership every start he went out last year and gave his all despite the fact he knew they were going nowhere. People around Felix were keeping a close eye on him to see what the day-in, day-out losing might do to him. One trusted confidant told him to be careful, to give what he could but to be careful not to try to give too much and put himself in jeopardy. I don't think Felix has a lesser gear and if he does and was using it last year, all I can say is, oh boy.
There are numbers to quantify what Felix does on the field but what he has done off the field, how he has quickly grown up to become the face of this team and one of it's leaders at just the age of 24 is remarkable. The Mariners have helped him. They have handled him carefully at every stage of the game but Felix is his own man and he credits his his family and friends and their support for getting him to where he is now.
I remember his first big league start. He was a bit wild, he was overstrong at times but there was no mistaking he was ready to live up to the hype. You saw it all on the mound and knew it was only a matter of time. Off the field, just 19 years old, he ran into the things any other rookie would. His teammates were hardly ready to anoint him "King". Not because they didn't believe in his stuff - because they too saw it - but because it was their job to keep him as a rookie in line and humble.
After his first start I pulled Felix aside with his interpreter for an interview. He had already done one with the group of beat writers but I told the interpreter to tell him that I wanted an interview in English. He barely spoke any at the time and protested mildly but I told him that if he was going to be a big deal he was going to have to learn how to do interviews in English. "If you can give me 30 seconds we will use 30 seconds," I told him. "If you don't say the right thing or if it sounds bad I will not run it. I will not let you sound bad. This will be good practice." Less than two years later he arrived at spring training and said no more interpreter. He learned the language remarkably fast and later would say that was important to him because he wanted to make sure his words were what was out there. Very impressive. Very Felix.
There were some grumbles about his immaturity on the mound in the coming years. His tendency to stomp around when things were not going his way I always thought was more a reflection of who he was, very demonstrative and a little bull in a china shop, rather than an attempt to show up an umpire. But regardless, in time he left those ways behind. Off the field he grew up quickly, getting married and having two children who he dotes on. It is hard to call a man with a family of four a kid.
One sight that sticks with me about how this person we so often call kid was anything but comes from 2009. On an off day I was shopping at Bellevue Square when I ran into Felix. He was with not just his wife and children but Jose Lopez's wife and young child. It was just days after Jose left the team while on a road trip to go home to be with his dying sister. His wife had been in the country for only a few months and spoke little English but there was Felix looking after her while his friend was away.
On the field and off the field Felix has grown up. Will he become a leader of this team? He already is. It goes beyond what he inspires on "Felix Day." I have witnessed him get after rookies to get their hair cut. I have seen him organize funds collections in the clubhouse for this or that. He has met with younger players to talk to them about life in the big leagues. He, Franklin Gutierrez and Lopez used to grab beers after games and sit and talk until they were the last ones left in the clubhouse. "Very old school," I remarked to him once. "It is old school," he replied, "but it helps. We talk about everything." Maybe he can pull more guys in this year.
Felix has had help along the way. His mother and father gave him an incredible foundation. His wife and two children keep him grounded. Pedro Avila, Emilio Carrasquel and Bob Engle found him as a youngster in Venezuela and nurtured a relationship with the family that remains today and that ultimately led Felix to sign with the Mariners. When he arrived at the big leagues Rafael Chavez was more than a pitching coach, he was like a brother to Felix. Mike Hargrove handled Felix in a fatherly manner. He couldn't help it. Aside from needing to protect the talent he saw the kid in him. Often when he had to take Felix out of a game, a tricky proposition back then, he would approach him on the mound and put his hand on Felix's cheek as he talked to him. I don't think I have ever seen that before in baseball but Felix accepted it. Believe me, if he didn't like it he would have let that be known. But instead you would see Felix look him in the eye as he talked and nod as he walked away.
Teammates have been an influence too. When I saw him get on the rookies last year I immediately thought of Eddie Guardado, an early influence. He is warm and affectionate with his teammates. In other words, he is a hugger and I think Griffey probably showed him that was okay. Having a beer with teammates in the clubhouse and talking about the game? He saw Bret Boone do that. Buying a house in the area and treating it like a home during the season and inviting teammates over? Joel Pineiro, Adrian Beltre and Carlos Silva were big on this. Seems like a small thing but don't take it for granted. Some years, teams have no one who is interested in bringing their team together away from the ballpark.
At the end of last year Felix told me that he still believed in the guys in the clubhouse. What he couldn't believe was that everyone could play so far below their numbers. He listed seven or eight guys and what they had done and what they had previously done. I told him that it was his team. It was great that he was patient and he didn't blame them but maybe he needed to get mad at them. It would certainly be within his rights to yell at them at some point. What he said next probably best reflects his maturity and leadership. "I have said things to them," he said, "but I do not need to yell."
Felix has grown up. Or has been grown up for a long time and people are just now realizing it. Recently I spoke with Bob Engle, the man who signed Felix (along with Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter) and asked what he remembered of a 15-year-old Felix Hernandez and what intangibles he saw at that time.
"Physically he had the ability but when you spoke to him...we were watching him throw a bullpen at our academy in Venezuela and he had this particular delivery that I would call a power delivery or professional delivery," he said. "I asked him 'how did you learn that?' He said 'I taught myself.' Wow. That tells you something about him."
Engle also acknowledged that Felix has matured very quickly and thinks that his confidence has had a big part in that.
"Here is a young man who didn't have many bumps or bruises coming through the system. I think he showed he was always competitive. He wants the ball. He rises to the occasion and that is something he has always done."
There is no question we have seen that every fifth day on the hill but if you look carefully I think you will see it days one through four off the field as well.