Before he won the AL Cy Young Award and pitched a perfecto, before he became the Seattle sports icon who turns every fifth game at Safeco Field into a must-see event, Felix Hernandez was a teenage phenom the Mariners handled with care.
“When he got called up to the big leagues, some people already were calling him ‘The King,’ but we made it a point to avoid any reference to that nickname,” Randy Adamack, Mariners senior vice president of communications, recalled Saturday. “We didn’t want to put too much pressure on him.”
The organization’s policy of insulating its young star from public adulation gradually was relaxed.
“We saw how good he was,” Adamack said, “and once he established himself, how he embraced the attention he got. It was obvious he enjoyed the interaction with the fans.”
The interaction Friday night, when Hernandez made his first home start of the season, was boisterous enough to qualify as a magical. A crowd of 38,968 showed up, and while the presence of the two-time defending division champion Oakland A’s didn’t hurt, the box-office spike was driven by a clever promotion — it included a T-shirt giveaway and distribution of “K” cards — that expanded The King’s Court into the “Supreme Court.”
Copycats abound in the sports marketing industry. The idea in 1990 by the Chicago White Sox of outfitting players in uniforms similar to those worn in 1917 — the White Sox hyped the occasion as a “Turn Back the Clock” game — begat a retro-uniform boom that’s now a promotional staple of every pro team (and a popular item in every pro team’s gift shop).
Mascot races, dancing grounds crews, souvenir bobbleheads, kids running the bases after a game: Somebody, somewhere, thought of it, and the rest of the world followed the cue.
By identifying Safeco Field section 150 as The King’s Court, offering discounted ticket prices and T-shirts for those games Hernandez is expected to start, the Mariners were the first MLB organization, and maybe the first in sports, to parlay the popularity of a single player into a consistent promotion.
The King’s Court originated in 2011, the year after the baseball writers concluded Hernandez’s pedestrian 13-12 record, for a team that provided its ace minimal run support, was less relevant than his 2.27 ERA and 232 strikeouts.
“Felix had just won the Cy Young Award in 2010,” Adamack said, “and our marketing department had a couple of meetings where ideas were tossed around on how to celebrate the fact he was best pitcher in the league. Somebody came up with the idea of allocating a section of seats for fans to gather when Felix starts.”
Adamack made sure Hernandez was comfortable with the notion of The King’s Court — and what pitcher not named Erik Bedard wouldn’t be? — but he also sought the approval of the organization’s “baseball people,” those entrusted with the day-to-day chore of trying to win games.
“We don’t run every promotional idea by them,” Adamack said. “But in this case, we needed to know if they would buy in. They were fine with it.”
A key component of The King’s Court’s sustainability is Hernandez’s tendency to keep his emotions balanced on the mound. Fans on their feet, hoisting “K” cards every time the count reaches two strikes, could be a temptation to wind up and try to throw a 101 mph fastball.
Hernandez doesn’t take the bait. When he’s at his best — and he was against the A’s, striking out 11 without allowing a walk — he settles into an all-business zone impervious to distractions.
But the affection of The King’s Court clearly appeals to him, and when the 1,500 or so fans who typically occupy The King’s Court converted into a Superior Court audience of almost 40,000 on Friday, Hernandez basked in the spotlight of the big stage.
One quibble: After the Mariners appeared to put the game out of reach, holding a 6-0 lead into the top of the eighth inning, manager Lloyd McClendon was ready to turn things over to the bullpen.
Hernandez, fired up by the crowd, made a plea to remain in the game, and the plea was granted, which is how a 6-0 lead ended up with a call for closer Fernando Rodney to seal the deal on a 6-4 nail biter.
Felix might be the king, but McClendon is the boss. McClendon’s gut hunch that Hernandez was spent after a brilliant performance was correct, and in a dugout encounter of hot-blooded competitors with strong wills, the manager blinked first.
No harm, no foul, so let’s dwell on the big picture.
For the first time in a big-league career destined for Hall of Fame enshrinement, Felix Hernandez is 3-0. He’s more than the face of the franchise; he’s its heart and soul, a king with the charisma of a fresh prince, and a marketing department’s dream.
The King’s Court?
It brings to mind that mid-August day in 2012, when Felix Hernandez faced 27 Tampa Bay hitters, and retired 27 of them.