By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
SEATTLE, April 17 -- With the great ones, you tread carefully. When he's 15, 16 years old, and you're working his family to get his signature on that contract, you remind yourself not to go overboard with the pressure. When he's 19, 20 years old, and he's already the best you've got, you keep running him out to the mound, but you give him a pitch limit and when he reaches it, you yank him. Most of all, when he's Felix Hernandez, 21 now and on the cusp of greatness, you choose your words with care. He may be the best you've ever seen, but you know better than to say it.
"I've never had a pitcher that had stuff as good as him," Seattle Mariners Manager Mike Hargrove said Tuesday afternoon. "He can be one of the great ones. Does that mean he will be? I don't know that."
The Mariners nurtured Hernandez for the better part of six years, wrapped him in felt like a precious gem, from the days when their bird-dog scout first saw him at age 14 in a schoolyard game in Valencia, Venezuela, to his first full big league season, when, at age 20, he made 31 starts, took a few beatings and got better because of them.
But now, the Mariners are beginning to treat Hernandez a little less gingerly, and already the results are stunning.
"I guess you could say," pitching coach Rafael Chaves said, "the beast is out of the cage."
In two starts this season, Hernandez has been breathtakingly good. On April 2, six days shy of his 21st birthday, he became the game's youngest Opening Day starter in 22 years, and he shut out the Oakland Athletics for eight innings, striking out 12 and allowing only three hits. Nine days later at Boston's Fenway Park, in a nationally televised game that was supposed to be all about Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hernandez stole the show with a dazzling, nine-inning, one-hit shutout.
"That was an unbelievable day for me," Hernandez said of the latter. "The best day of my career."
His third start comes Wednesday night at Seattle's Safeco Field against the Minnesota Twins, and chances are it will be worth staying up late on the East Coast to see. Baseball has not seen a phenom like Hernandez in generations, perhaps not since Dwight Gooden broke in with the New York Mets in 1984.
For the Mariners, this season is the culmination of a process that began in 2001, when scout Luis Fuenmayor first spotted Hernandez, then only 14 years old. Fuenmayor immediately phoned Mariners area scouts Pedro Avila and Emilio Carrasquel, and the delicate recruiting process began.
"Right away, we knew he would be a special player," Carrasquel said in a telephone interview Tuesday from Venezuela. "He was so much better than anyone else. I called Bob Engle [the Mariners' director of international scouting] and said, 'Bob, you better come right away. We cannot miss this kid.' "
The Mariners immediately assigned Avila to attend every one of Hernandez's games, and both Avila and Carrasquel began wooing his parents -- father Felix Sr., a truck driver, and mother Mirian. By the time Hernandez turned 16 -- the legal signing age -- every team in baseball knew who he was, but only a handful were serious contenders. But Hernandez chose the Mariners over the Yankees and Braves, not because of money -- their offer of $710,000 was less than what the Braves offered -- but because they had been there first and had been nice.
"They were good people," Hernandez said. "They made me feel comfortable, and they treated my family well."
Once Hernandez was in their organization, the Mariners charted a conservative course for him, and he did his part by dominating at every stage of the minor leagues, until, in August 2005, they called him up to the majors. In his second big league start, he threw eight scoreless innings against the Twins.
"There are so many things a young man is confronted with," Engle said. "You never like to go overboard in talking about any particular pitcher. But he had all the elements at a young age to show he had the possibility of greatness."
In 2006, his first full year in the majors, Hernandez went 12-14 with a 4.52 ERA while getting awful run support -- a good year, but hardly the 24-4, 1.53 ERA masterpiece Gooden authored in 1985, when he was 20. After the season, Hernandez returned to Venezuela -- where he, girlfriend Mariella and their daughter Mia, now 20 months old, lived with Hernandez's parents -- and began a workout program that resulted in a 20-pound weight loss by the time he reported to spring training this year.
"Last year he was fat and overweight," said Wil Polidor, Hernandez's agent. "But he came home and worked for four straight months, every day. He was focused on one thing: doing everything he could to make himself a better pitcher."
His arsenal of pitches needed almost no improvement. He throws a fastball that reaches 98 mph, a tantalizing slow curve, a devastating slider and a change-up that -- at around 86 mph -- is faster than many pitchers' fastballs.
After Hernandez's stunning performance against the Red Sox, Boston slugger David Ortiz was left to marvel: "I haven't seen anything like that in a long time. He can have a career like Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan, Pedro Martinez -- that kind of career. If he behaves, and he takes care of himself, he can be somebody really big in this game."
However, the process of turning phenoms into legends is fraught with peril -- for proof, look no further than the injury-marred career of Chicago Cubs right-hander Kerry Wood -- which is why the Mariners were so cautious with Hernandez for so long.
"When everybody in the world is getting carried away by this kid," Hargrove said, explaining the dilemma he faces in managing Hernandez, "you're the one guy who can't."
Hernandez himself seems nearly oblivious to the buzz that is beginning to surround him. Asked if there is a pitcher whose career he would like to emulate, he said, "I just want to be like me, like Felix."
"A couple of years ago," pitching coach Chaves said, "when I asked Felix what was his plan in baseball -- how did he see himself and what did he want out of himself -- he had the simplest answer to that question. He said, 'I just want to pitch for as long as I can.' That was the greatest answer I could ever get out of a young guy. You never expect to get that answer."
It was a cautious answer, because the great ones know this about themselves: If they can simply make it to the mound and pitch, 30-plus times a year, year after year, greatness will come. It surely will.