PHOTO CAPTION: Felix Hernandez stands in the bedroom of his boyhood home in Valencia, Venezuela in October 2006 after his first full season with the Mariners.
Six years ago this coming October, I had the opportunity to travel to Venezuela and spend some time in the boyhood home of a pitcher who was still mostly a boy himself despite all those folks who wanted him to be a man. Felix Hernandez was still sleeping in the same upstairs bedroom in the home where his parents had raised him in the city of Valencia.
Hernandez was only 20 at the time and just one full season into his big league career. He was still on the pudgy side, having not yet submitted his body to the true rigors most champion pitchers undergo en route to leaving boyhood behind. The Mariners had chosen to be largely hands-off in Hernandez’s first full campaign, knowing he’d face enough hardships getting to know the rigors of a complete season.
And it was rigorous.
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After he’d dazzled the baseball world as a 19-year-old, late-season callup in 2005, the 2006 season saw Hernandez go 12-14 with a 4.52 ERA. Not bad for an initial first season, but many observers were slightly disappointed, not realizing that it takes time to groom an ace. It doesn’t happen overnight and it also never happens passively for the pitcher. He has to be an active participant in the process. Baseball isn’t an episode of The Tudors. In baseball, kings don’t just ascend their throne by birthright and this King wasn’t going to either.
Hernandez had to work for it. And it all began a few weeks after I left him behind in Venezuela, where he rested up after that physically exhausting first season. Not long after, as the Mariners had planned, he began his off-season conditioning program and would go on to drop roughly 25 pounds. He’s continued to condition himself in the off seasons since and now looks nothing like he used to.
But it wasn’t only the off-field stuff that needed work. Hernandez’s in-game demeanor would take years of honing. First, he had to shed his penchant for losing his composure on the mound when faced with setbacks, be it an umpire’s non-strike call or a teammate missing an infield grounder that would have helped him escape an inning.
Hernandez was still allowing one or two setbacks to derail his outings in 2007. Perhaps he was sensing an urgency, a need to make up for lost time. He’d already lost a month to an elbow injury the first part of 2007.
Then came 2008, when the Mariners as a franchise tumbled off a cliff. The team had become the first in baseball history to have a payroll in excess of $100 million, while losing more than 100 games and no one player on the squad was able to do much about it. Hernandez faced some big early games that year but was not able to stop his team’s slide. The previous September, at Yankee Stadium, he’d shown flashes of an emerging ace when he’d shut the Yankees down in a huge contest for his still-contending team — which was already in the midst of a late-year freefall that would doom any playoff hopes.
But in 2008, he was unable to carry it over with the same dominance.
It wasn’t until 2009 that a still very young Hernandez completed the transformation from potential star to ace of this Mariners staff. You’ll remember how, in May of that year, former manager Don Wakamatsu challenged Hernandez in public after the Los Angeles Angels ran wild on him in a game at Safeco Field. Wakamatsu was the first manager bold enough to stop coddling Hernandez and say what needed to be said out loud. That he still wasn’t focusing enough on what was going on at several key moments of games. We’ve seen many pitchers do that over the years — including Hector Noesi to a much greater extent this season in two-strike counts — and Hernandez, in his fourth full big league season, was still far from perfect.
And Wakamatsu said it out loud. Hernandez faced a key turning point. He could have pouted over Wakamatsu’s attempt to challenge him. Or, he could have done what he eventually did: responded at a level he’d never shown before.
Since that moment, he’s never looked back.
Hernandez began a roll that took him to a 19-win campaign in which he finished second in Cy Young Award balloting to the dominant Zack Greinke. In just about any other year, Hernandez would have won the Cy Young, but Greinke in 2009 was just that good.
One year later, having completed an even more masterful season in which he overwhelmed competitors in just about every important pitching category, Hernandez became the first pitcher in history to capture a Cy Young with just 13 wins. He was a beacon of stardom on another 101-loss team.
Hernandez has remained an ace ever since. He has been one since 2009, even though his performance has fluctuated from time to time. Hernandez wasn’t nearly as dominant the first two months of this season as he was in 2010, but has taken off since and now has a shot at another Cy Young depending on what he does the final seven weeks. This perfect game thrown yesterday will have the effect of vaulting him into the minds of voters to the point where he can now be rated right up there with Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver.
Two years ago, Hernandez received the needed boost with several late road games in New York, Boston and Toronto. The first two enabled him to showcase his dominance for East Coast pundits by beating two of baseball’s best teams in their home ballparks. That final Toronto game, a 1-0 loss in which he allowed only two hits — one, a first-inning homer to Jose Bautista — helped show voters how meaningless “wins” could be in gauging the dominance of a pitcher playing for a team that can’t hit its way out of the paper bags its fans would wear on their heads.
Hernandez won’t have those late-season East Coast games this time. But he doesn’t need them. After yesterday, he’s on the national radar.
In many ways, I feel fortunate to have caught a glimpse of the boyhood Hernandez while he was still around back in October 2006. To meet the mother and father who’d raised him and who, in many ways, still were. A look at the humble beginnings before the body transformation, before the fancy haircuts and the diamonds and the adulation we as adults tend to throw on kids barely into their 20s when they become sports figures.
I saw the baseball field, a few blocks from his home, where he’d toiled as a Little Leaguer, dreaming off a life in another land that could not have seemed further away.
Felix Hernandez wasn’t always larger than life.
He was a child who has grown up baseball-wise before our eyes.
I’ve yet to cover a no-hitter or perfect game. But I feel fortunate to have witnessed firsthand the transformation of two great pitchers — Roy Halladay and now, Hernandez — from boys to men in a baseball context. Hernandez, at his age, remains a couple of years ahead of Halladay in his progression, lacking only that second Cy Young it took the pitcher known as “Doc” well into his 30s to achieve.
But today, it all seems possible for Hernandez. Today, that second Cy Young seems like it could happen as quickly as this year at age 26.
After that, who knows?
This morning, I think back to six years ago and the sight of a still boyish Hernandez lying sideways on his bed, the sounds of rooftop roosters crowing outside. Back then, you could only contemplate what the future held.
Not today. Today, you can see how far Hernandez has already come. And the realization of how little time it really all took in the grand scheme of things allows you to dream, with much greater clarity, of the things that lie ahead.