-- The man-child hides beneath a towel. All around Felix Hernandez there is joy in the Seattle Mariners' clubhouse, grown men dancing, laughing, music playing. All because of him, the prodigy in their midst. Once again he had broken another group of adults, humiliated them, left them in silent disbelief.
In another lost baseball summer in Seattle, this is all they have to celebrate -- the wonderful right arm of a 19-year-old who does things with a baseball many of them have never seen. They talk excitedly in several languages about the fastball that roars at 98 mph or the curveball that seems to drop from the sky. The slider, too, vicious at speeds in the mid-80s. They gape and wonder how he does this.
Catcher Yorvit Torrealba, who is from Caracas, the capital of Venezuela -- two hours from Valencia, a city at the base of the Cordillera de la Costa that produced the prodigy -- talked of their first meeting. It came in August when Hernandez first arrived from the minor leagues and Torrealba, trying to learn about his new charge, asked what pitches he would feel most comfortable throwing.
Hernandez looked at him in surprise and said he could throw any of them, in any situation, and they would all be for strikes.
Torrealba laughed because pitchers do not say this, no matter their age. There is always a flaw, a weakness, a time when not to throw a fastball or a curve. Could he be serious? And yet the look in Hernandez's eyes told Torrealba that indeed he was. Then he crouched behind the plate on that first night against Detroit and he came to know that all of it was true.
"His confidence level is very high," Torrealba said, shaking his head.
So the music played and the players danced, this time for a victory over the Oakland Athletics -- seven scoreless innings -- in which Hernandez made the most patient hitting team in baseball look helpless. Which is pretty much what he had previously done to the Tigers, Twins, Royals, White Sox and Yankees.
Tomorrow, the Orioles get to see for themselves what the rest of the American League is starting to realize, that this is a pitcher unlike any of the others who have come before him in a long time.
And if the Orioles should hit him, knocking him from the game, then they will be the first. Because in the first seven major league games that Felix Hernandez has pitched, he has only given up 31 hits in 51 innings and struck out 50 while walking just 10. So dominating has he been that only four outs in his past four starts have come on fly balls and one of those was really a soft line drive to the shortstop.
"What he's doing in the present is beyond anyone's expectations," Mariners pitching coach Bryan Price said. "The maturity is unequaled."
And yet in the midst of the party, of the happy Mariners celebrating his magnificence again, Hernandez sits with the towel on his head, peering boyishly from beneath. Only an hour before he was subduing men almost twice his age, making them lunge at his curve, twisting their hands into the handle of the bat in nervous anticipation of the unhittable fastball they knew was coming.
But peeking from under the towel, it is clear to see he is still 19 and very much a child. He dreads attention, ducking from interviews as much as possible, mumbling cliches in Spanish to a woman from the Mariners who dutifully translates his mutterings.
"My age doesn't matter," he said. "What matters is I can pitch. I just try to throw strikes."
Later, Manager Mike Hargrove will laugh and say, "Felix doesn't say much; if he had a mouth full of nickels he wouldn't give you change for a quarter."
Still, they worry about him, worry about the fragility of youth and the recipe for trouble that sometimes comes when you bring a young player to the United States and throw him into the fire. What if they ruin him? What if his time in the majors is a disaster and they leave him scarred for life?
To prepare against this they challenged him, fighting daily the urge to bring him along slowly against the need to see how he handled tests. The problem was he adapted to each new situation beautifully, rising through Seattle's system in less than three years, culminating with a half season in Tacoma this year. When he went three months without giving up a home run, Tacoma's manager, Dan Rohn, called the Mariners and said "he's out of challenges."
People around baseball still talk about the night he faced the Yankees two weeks ago, when he lost to Randy Johnson on two solo home runs and yet also struck out seven, including Tino Martinez on three pitches so good Martinez never even moved his bat.
"Just wow!" said Mariners broadcaster Dave Valle, a former major league catcher. "It was as if he was pitching against the Salt Lake City Gulls."
There was, of course, another one like him. Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire, his team stymied twice by Felix Hernandez, remembers the last time a pitcher so young looked so good. A 19-year-old named Dwight Gooden owned the summer of 1984 with a fastball that climbed and climbed and a curve that brought batters to their knees. In spring training that year he was so overwhelming that his New York Mets teammates, done for the day, would stay for exhibition games simply to watch him pitch.
Fans rose to clap when he had two strikes like many had never done before. The practice of hanging signs with the letter "K" for each strikeout began in the upper reaches of Shea Stadium on the nights Gooden pitched. It was a magical summer, one seemingly destined to roll on forever. But almost as fast as it came for Gooden, it stopped. Within three years he was on a spiral toward ordinary, falling into drugs and alcohol until his career had flat-lined.
Maybe because this happens once every 21 years, Gooden's name has been attached to Hernandez's, a cautionary tale to be dangled over a player with still innocent eyes.
"It's inevitable," Mariners General Manager Bill Bavasi says of the comparisons. "But the only thing you can do is compare them on the dirt" of the pitching mound.
It is, of course, unfair to draw any parallel of Gooden's personal life with Hernandez's, who by all accounts has never met with any sort of trouble. But Mariners officials seem to worry. One, speaking privately, said he hoped unsavory players wouldn't try to attach themselves to Hernandez's comet. Another independent advisor, asked to watch Hernandez in the minors and write a report, said he thought the pitcher could be one of the greatest ever as long as he stayed out of trouble.
Ron Darling, a Nationals broadcaster and a teammate of Gooden's on those Mets teams, said he finds this thinking "condescending." "Dwight's situation was very unique," he said. "I don't think it had to do with being 19 in New York or any other influences; it was Dwight Gooden's fault."
In other words, just because Gooden could overpower grown men at 19 doesn't mean that Hernandez is destined to follow a self-destructive path. "It's hard for anyone, anywhere because you have to have that internal drive," Price said. "With the money being what it is, it's easy for players to turn themselves off. Felix had already gotten a lot of attention before the season started. He could easily have fallen off and believed everything that was being said and written and think that it qualified him to be better than someone else. Entitled.
"But he does seem to have his head in the right place."
Or as Hernandez's teammate, Eddie Guardado, said, "I can tell you he's going to be okay."
Guardado was asked how he could be so confident.
"It's in the way he goes about his business," Guardado said. "You always look at how he was brought up. His mom and dad were strong people. The background he came from was strong."
Across the room, Hernandez has pulled the towel off his head. He smiles, aware of what he has done on the field but almost unsure of how he should respond. Hargrove was delighted with the way Hernandez worked himself out of trouble in the seventh inning by understanding that he was trying to throw too hard to get out of a dicey situation, realizing the mistake and then relaxing to get the last out.
"This kid is a pretty intelligent kid," he said.
Price, who is sitting two rooms away in the coaches' clubhouse, wouldn't mind a more taxing challenge, a piece of adversity that will really test Hernandez's will. The Mariners are long removed from the playoff hunt, so it wouldn't hurt to see what happens when he gives up seven runs in three innings. What will he do then?
It seems important to know, because everything about Hernandez appears to have to do with his future. "There's nobody in the history of baseball that ever did something successful without struggling," Price said. "It was how they made it through that struggle that made them great."
Then the pitching coach smiled, amazed like everyone else by the young star suddenly put under his charge, also wondering what it all will come to mean.
"If I had his talent at that age, I'm sure I would have found a way to screw it up," he said. "He just refuses to do that."