King Felix Ascends the Throne

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of The Grand Salami.

By Amaury Pi-González

Believe it or not, Felix Hernandez, the ace of the Mariners pitching staff, just turned 23 early last month. It’s hard to believe because of all that King Felix has accomplished since signing with the Seattle organization as a 16-year-old in July of 2002. After just 2½ years in the minors, he joined the Mariners’ rotation in August of 2005 and hasn’t looked back, winning 40 games and posting an ERA of 3.80. After being held out of the inaugural World Baseball Classic by the M’s in 2006, Hernandez was anxious to pitch for his native Venezuela during this year’s WBC and he helped his county reach the semi-finals of the tournament with 8 2/3 scoreless innings of scoreless ball, striking out 11. Felix was kind enough to sit down for an interview with The Grand Salami in Oakland during the Mariners’ first road trip of the season.

GRAND SALAMI: Tell us what it was like for you to pitch for your country in the World Baseball Classic in March.

FELIX HERNANDEZ: The Classic was a very beautiful experience for me, especially because I was able to learn a lot from the Venezuelan veterans on the team, especially Ramón Hernández (Baltimore Orioles catcher), who taught me many things. He helped me out a lot. It’s a very competitive tournament and it was a great experience for me.

GS: You were really dominant against Puerto Rico (4 2/3 innings, 7 strikeouts) in the game that got Venezuela to the semi-finals.

FELIX: It’s the biggest game I’ve ever pitched — it was the most exciting day of my life.

GS: This Mariner team has 8 Venezuelans on the 25-man roster. Does that make you feel happy, like you’re back home in Venezuela?

FELIX: It’s great. It’s a great feeling to have so many Latinos on the team.

GS: What are your thoughts about this year’s Mariners?

FELIX: I think we’re well structured and we can do something special this year. We’re playing like a team, scoring runs, playing great defense and having fun.

GS: You were the Mariners’ opening day pitcher this year for the second time (also in 2007). What does it mean to you to be the #1 starter?

FELIX: To be the ace of the rotation, it’s an honor because we have a very good rotation. (Erik) Bedard is an ace too — he’s one of the toughest left-handers in baseball, so to be the ace of the staff is a great honor for me.

GS: In the season opener in Minnesota, you twisted your ankle in the first inning, but you stuck it out and went eight solid innings. That seems like a perfect example of what an ace can do for a team.

FELIX: I was in a lot of pain, but I told (M’s manager Don Wakamatsu) that I was fine, that he wasn’t taking me out… I want to win every game I pitch. That’s not going to happen, but I’ve got to do my job. I’ve got to throw strikes.

GS: The team has a completely new coaching staff this year, which includes a new manager, Don Wakamatsu and a new pitching coach, Rick Adair. What do these changes mean for you?

FELIX: That’s a very good question. Since I’ve been with the Major League team (starting in August of 2005), we’ve had four different managers (Mike Hargrove, John McLaren, Jim Riggleman, and Don Wakamatsu) and four different pitching coaches (Bryan Price, Rafael Chaves, Mel Stottlemyre, and Rick Adair). I like Rick (Adair). He is a very good person; the whole coaching staff this year is good. They know what they’re doing and they’re going to help us to become better ballplayers.

GS: Any major differences between Rick Adair and the other pitching coaches you’ve had in Seattle?

FELIX: They’ve all been different, but none of them have tried to change what I’m doing on the mound. I know what I have to do and I just have to go ahead and do it.

GS: When Ken Griffey, Jr., made his debut with the Mariners in 1989 you weren’t even three years old yet. What’s it like to play with him?

FELIX: I used to see him play and he was really something. To be able to play on the same team with him in Seattle is really special for me. He’s a tremendous person — he’s much different than I expected; it was obvious right from the moment that I met him that he was a great team guy.

GS: It seems that Griffey and Mike Sweeney, neither of whom played for the team last year, have become the leaders on this 2009 team.

FELIX: That’s true — they’re the most veteran players. They’re real good leaders — I think Griffey and Sweeney would be leaders on any team they played for.

GS: You pitched well last season but you didn’t get a lot of run support (second worst in the AL) and only won nine games. Does that concern you?

FELIX: No, it really doesn’t worry me — I can’t control that. All I can do is give the best I’ve got and try to win every time I go to the mound. If the victories aren’t there, there is really nothing that I can do.

GS: On the other hand, it seems when you are given a lead, you bear down more.

FELIX: Always, always, always. I go from less to more, and when I get in trouble, sometimes it brings out the best that I have and I have to try to get out of trouble and finish as many innings as I can.

GS: It’s been reported that the Mariners have offered you multi-year contracts, but so far you have only signed one-year deals. Do you think there’s a chance that a multi-year deal could happen in the near future? I ‘m sure the added job security would be nice for you to have.

FELIX: I hope that they want me to stay here, but if they don’t, I can’t be thinking about that kind of stuff. All I can do is focus on playing baseball.

GS: How have the fans been in Seattle?

FELIX: The fans here have been great to me; they’ve been patient with me. They’re great fans as far as I am concerned.

Amaury Pi-González, currently the Spanish language broadcaster for the Oakland Athletics, has been calling Major League games for 31 years. He was the Spanish language broadcaster for the Mariners from 2003 to 2006. This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of The Grand Salami.