Felix Hernandez had just signed a contract to stay in Seattle through 2019, and there was one more request to go with the $175 million the Mariners owed him over the next seven years.
“Give me a minute,” Hernandez said in a cracked voice, searching for the right words from a language that isn’t his own. Camera shutters clicked amid the silence.
He wanted to say thanks, and there were many to thank – so much to be thankful for – but he couldn’t start until the tears stopped welling in his eyes.
Guaranteed the most money ever paid to a baseball pitcher, King Felix figured to show up for his contract-signing press conference Wednesday with his big shoulders back and his regal smile fit for a portrait pose. Instead, the King was moved to tears.
Uh, Felix? There’s no crying in baseball, not when lucrative contracts are torn up and converted into historic contracts.
But as he gathered himself, as he found the very right words to describe the peculiar, powerful love affair between a gifted Venezuelan pitcher and the Puget Sound baseball fans who have come to see him as royalty, the tears were as right as rain.
Hernandez extended gratitude toward his family and teammates, fans and business representatives, and Safeco Field employees and general manager Jack Zduriencik – “thanks to Jack, man, can’t leave Jack out of this” – and CEO Howard Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong, and then he offered the conference room his version of an inauguration address.
“I’m not gonna disappoint
anybody,” proclaimed Hernandez, his stable voice gaining volume. “I’m gonna do my best, more than my best. I’m not gonna disappoint Howard and Chuck. We’re gonna be one of the toughest teams in this league.”
Hernandez paused. Five minutes into the seven-year contract that will serve as his career prime, he had to acknowledge the obvious.
“You see me shaking,” he went on. “The Seattle Mariners are gonna be on top. Believe me, I’m not saying this because I’m signing the contract. I don’t care about that. I care about the city of Seattle. I love this place – this has been my life. This has been my family. I’m gonna go to spring training tomorrow and do my best.”
Interjected Zduriencik: “He’s making me cry.
It was that kind of occasion, maybe more solemn than announcements about $175 million contract signings deserve, but pitch perfect for the guy who last summer sealed his Mariners legacy by pitching perfectly.
Scouted at 14, signed to his first pro contract at 16, Hernandez took a fast track to the big leagues during his 2005 season in Tacoma. His Triple-A record was 9-4. His ERA was 2.25. He had 100 strikeouts in 88 innings.
He was 19.
Over the seven-and-a-half seasons since his promotion from the Rainiers, Felix has become a kind of composite ideal of a Mariners superstar. He’s Randy Johnson without the surly edge, and Ken Griffey Jr. without the persistent, “what am I doing here?” apathy toward Seattle, and Ichiro without the unapproachable aura.
Hernandez’s amiable disposition conjures images of the ever-pleasant Edgar Martinez, but I’m trying to imagine Edgar moved to tears during a contract-extension press conference, and I can’t.
Felix Hernandez, at 26, is one of a kind: A Hall of Fame-caliber talent who not only wants to play in Seattle, but is also moved to tears by the idea of staying in Seattle.
It’s a reciprocal dynamic. As Hernandez choked back tears Wednesday, lots of us in the Safeco Field interview room – along with anybody who watched the replay on TV – fought to choke back tears, too.
Some levity, finally, was applied when Felix talked of already wanting another contract extension.
“You better tell Howard and Chuck about his,” Zduriencik responded.
Hernandez: “I’m just kidding.”
Zduriencik: “You’re not kidding. Like I’ve told you, if you win a Cy Young Award, you can work out anything you want.”
Seven more years of Felix Hernandez in Seattle means the Mariners are guaranteeing $175 million to one player – a pitcher, at that, the most blatant of injury risks. It’s a gamble, for sure, but if the next seven years of Felix’s deal are anything like first 30 minutes, we’re in for the ride of a lifetime.