To Freddy Garcia with love. Thanks for King Felix. Signed, Mariners fans.
Felix Hernandez wasn’t a legend by the time he was 15. That’s how we’ll remember it years from now when his plaque goes up in Cooperstown. Besides, it’s close enough to the truth. Scouts definitely knew his name by then. They knew he had electric stuff even for that age, and they believed he would get even stronger and bigger as he got older. When he turned 17, he had a stack of offers. Teams worked him hard, worked the family, worked every angle.
The Astros had done great work in Venezuela and were thought to have an advantage because of the brilliant Andres Reiner, the architect of the program that signed Freddy Garcia, Richard Hidalgo and Bobby Abreu. The Yankees, as always, were a factor. The Braves threw around all kinds of numbers. In the end, though, Hernandez signed a $710,000-deal with the Mariners.
His father, Felix Sr., believed in the plan that Mariners scout Bob Engle laid out. Engle had done great work building a relationship with the family, and when the dollar figures began to blur, King Felix went with the guy he trusted. He was also attracted to the Mariners because his boyhood hero, Freddy Garcia, pitched for them.
Garcia had originally signed with the Astros, but was traded to the Mariners in the deal that sent Randy Johnson to Houston in 1998.
He signed the deal a few weeks after turning 16 and pitched his first professional game a year later, in 2003. He appeared in the Futures Game in 2004, and by that time, he was a legend in baseball circles. The Mariners sent him to Triple-A in his third pro season, and later that summer, on August 5, 2005, he made his Major League debut at the age of 19.
At the moment, there’s no one better. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen him shut out both the Yankees and Nationals. In both games, he seemed to be toying with hitters. He has that 100-mph fastball, but because his changeup is so good, because his breaking ball is so good, it probably looks like 200 mph to hitters.
There are stretches of games when he’s absolutely capable of getting outs with any of his pitches. He commands the strike zone with all of them, and rather than setting up hitters, he seems to pick a pitch to throw and execute it perfectly. He’s a joy to watch, an absolute joy. He’s performing at a level we don’t see very often.
At the Major League Owners Meetings in Denver, Commissioner Bud Selig, Joe Torre and others stopped what they were doing to watch the final couple of innings of King Felix’s perfect game against the Rays.
He got five of his last six outs on strikeouts, and he went down the whole list. He got Evan Longoria on a curveball, Ben Zobrist on a change and Carlos Perez on a change in the eighth. In the ninth, he got every out on change-ups. That’s because he’d commanded his 95-mph heat so brilliantly earlier in the game that hitters had to look for it first. They ended up off balance and looking back.
He’s only 26 years and should still have prime years remaining. For a franchise like the Mariners, a franchise that’s being rebuilt, a franchise that could be a year or two from getting back to the playoffs, there probably was the temptation to trade him. In the end, the Mariners decided he was too good to trade. He’s good enough to build a franchise around, plus a marketing campaign and plenty of other things. His every start is an event. There’s an extra buzz in the park. He had his greatest day ever on Wednesday afternoon, but it’s surely not the last great day he has.