Felix Hernandez: The Mariners’ blushing new bride
by Art Thiel
Felix Hernandez brought his Cy Young award to a Mariners' media session. Credit: Seattle Mariners
It felt like the right boy and right girl announced their engagement to the joy, relief and surprise of their many fans. Fans who so wished it would happen and so knew it wouldn't.
Today, Felix Hernandez was the blushing bride, creating a high tide of tears that dampened the pant cuffs of everyone at the Wednesday press conference announcing his new deal with the Mariners. Hell, shirt cuffs were wet.
Hernandez gets a $6 million signing bonus, then his salaries will be $19M in 2013, then $22M, $24M, $25M, $26M, $26M and $27M. Since none of us is likely to receive $175 million for our services — certainly, no baseball pitcher in major league history had — Hernandez was free to set the standard for grateful appreciation. He may have retired the trophy.
"You see, I am shaking," said Hernandez, who paused for 20 seconds, searching for a grip. "To all the people of Seattle who trust me and believe in me — I will not let you down.”
"I do this because I love this city and want to be here. I don’t want to go nowhere else. It was a decision I’ve made for a long time."
No cynicism, sabermetrics or common baseball sense could stand against Hernandez's simple sincerity. Dude wanted to play baseball in Seattle for the rest of his career. The only ones who wanted it more were the Mariners’ owners and staff, sick to death of a decade of emotional bludgeoning.
The club doesn't care how it looks to the baseball world or the real world. It cares that Felix cares and that many fans care. This deal wasn't about getting better as a team; the man was already under contract for two more years. This was about try to get well by stopping the bleeding from self-inflicted wounds.
The man most vilified for the condition of the Mariners, CEO Howard Lincoln, made a rare public appearance to say, essentially, he was thrilled to have his operation wanted.
"I think it's important more than anything that he wanted to be here," Lincoln said. "He was expressing this over and over and over. That's pretty unusual. How many players tell you to your face, 'I'd really like to stay here'? That makes you feel pretty good."
The feel-goods Thursday started with Hernandez's emergence from the elevator on Safeco Field's ground floor. He was greeted by chants and cheers from dozens of Mariners employees dressed in the yellow T-shirts from the "King's Court" marketing masterstroke. He teared up immediately, saying later the moment “will always be there in my mind my whole life.”
He continued to the press conference, where his voice wavered from the start. GM Jack Zduriencik provided the grand intro: "You run into people in your life who are special people. I haven't met a guy with this man's character. His loyalty and dedication to his teammates and city is unbelievable. He's a great man."
Hernandez begins his ninth major league season this month as a hugely accomplished pro, yet he has zero inclination to try someplace new; a contention regularly disbelieved by many locals, who have grown used to being backhanded by dozens of eagerly former Mariners.
"I don’t want to go to a place I don’t feel happy, I don’t feel comfortable," he said. "I want to be in a place I feel great, I feel comfortable. I feel good around the people and Safeco Field, around the city of Seattle. That’s why I do this.”
He even kidded Zduriencik that he wanted the GM to start work on a contract extension. Imagine what he might have said if the Mariners had kept Safeco Field's fences where they were.
As to the contract, Zduriencik reported that the $175 million amount was correct, the deal was fully guaranteed and included a no-trade clause, a club first. He also reported that the medical and training staffs signed off on Hernandez's health-worthiness. But there was indeed concern about his pitching elbow, enough to prompt inclusion of an unusual clause in the contract.
FoxSports.com reported that Hernandez’s contract provides a conditional club option for a salary of $1 million in 2020. The provisional salary would apply only if Hernandez is on the disabled list for more than 130 days in any 183 consecutive major-league days for right elbow surgery or any other procedure to fix his right elbow.
“We got a complete medical from our doctors," Zduriecik said. "Our doctors were very satisfied with it. He got a clean bill of health. [Team doctor] Ed Khalfayan was very comfortable. He said this guy could pitch his whole career and never have an issue.”
Would this deal have been possible if the Mariners had signed free agent outfielder Josh Hamilton to a reported $100 million four-year deal? He signed with the Angels for five guaranteed years at $125 million.
“Yeah, I do believe it would be [doable],” Zduriencik said. “I really do. It’s a great question. I tried to say this, and sometimes people think you say it just because you’re supposed to say it, but that was a real deal we had on the table."
"I’ve read some [disparaging remarks from Hamilton], and I was like, ‘Really?’ It makes me shake my head a little bit. Those were substantial dollars. I don’t think it would have affected this deal, because this ownership has said, for the right player at the right time, we will invest. I think that commitment there, although it didn’t work out.”
“This commitment to Felix really says they will spend, and they have."
They did spend. They discovered their money was good with Felix Hernandez. Now, if Hernandez is as good for the Mariners, Seattle will be taken seriously for more than just the guts it takes to write a check from the heart.