Felix Hernandez at 17

Phenom Felix Hernandez (The Herald)

Felix Hernandez turns 30 years of age today. To most in the Puget Sound area, he’s known as King Felix, thanks to USSMariner.com. It was 13 years ago I first saw Hernandez at short-season Everett. He was 17 years old and had but one professional start under his belt.  I was one month into my tenure at InsidethePark.com and knew nothing about writing and what you’re about to read below sat unpublished for 150 weeks. I just loved baseball, and typed this up and emailed it to myself the day after the game. I finally posted it three years later at Prospect Insider, but here’s what I wrote.

Nothing has been changed except I cleaned up the punctuation and fixed a typo. It was the fifth ‘thing’ I ever wrote about baseball.

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Felix Hernandez, RHP (17)

June 28, 2003

It’s impossible to watch a dominating performance by a 6-foot-3, 195-pound kid out of Venezuela and not come away intrigued. But how likely is it that after one pitch my bugged-out eyes would get stuck that way for four innings of baseball?

The Seattle Mariners are undoubtedly excited about the future of Felix Hernandez. That first pitch was enough to explain why. I sat 15 feet behind the scouts. First pitch fastball: 95 mph. I was alone at the game, but looked for someone to share popped eyes with, to no avail.

He’s barely 17 years of age but already dazzles with velocity and a major-league quality curveball. He went but four innings Friday, striking out four, walking two and allowing two runs on four hits, but the fastball reached 97 mph and batters were at the mercy of the right-hander when the count go to two strikes.

I’m told Hernandez is the latest of many quality signings by Mariners’ international scouting director Bob Engle, brought to the team by GM Pat Gillick. Top prospect Jose Lopez, Hernandez’s fellow countryman, is another. I’m also told Hernandez is working on a changeup and has a slider that may be better than his curveball. At such a young age, the Mariners have pushed aside the slider for now, but Hernandez “throws it some” in between starts, said AquaSox manager Pedro Grifol.

Grifol also said “you don’t see arms like this too often, you really don’t. He’s got special written all over him. It’s not just that he throws hard — and he does, nothing’s under 93 usually — it’s the curveball and the physical makeup.”

Hernandez is listed at 175 pounds, but it’s easy to see that’s an old measurement. He carries 190-200 pounds well at 17 years old, and he even showed a little fire after a big out to end a Boise rally. He also smiled at catcher Brock Griffin jogging off the mound.

Everett won the game, but I’m not sure I noticed that until sitting down to type this. Hernandez captured my eye and my mind, and as a lifelong Seattleite I spent the final innings of the game thinking and talking about Hernandez.

One scout in attendance mumbled, “holy &%!# where’d they get this kid?” reminding me of  Coach Pepper’s line from Major League.

For the entire outing, Hernandez repeatedly hit 95 mph on the gun, including a 96 in the fourth inning and three 97s in all. The radar reading directly in front of me never showed a fastball below 92 and only four below 93.

We all remember Randy Johnson in Seattle. Just 2,819 days ago, Johnson played a rather large role in putting the Mariners on the baseball map with a gutty Game 5 performance in relief, just two days after starting and throwing 117 pitches.

I’m not saying Hernandez is going to win Cy Youngs and walk in from the bullpen to ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ in a huge spot in the postseason versus the New York Yankees, but the foundation for that exists in a player born less than 3,500 days prior to The Double.

It’s just one game, but power, passion and all the physical makings of a superstar were on display at Everett Memorial Friday night. Not convinced?

Boise first baseman Brian Dopirak said after the game: “I’m just glad he wasn’t out there longer than he was. That’s a tough at-bat.”

Boise manager Steve McFarland, who played five years of pro ball and faced eventual major leaguers Kent Tekulve and Doc Medich, said “I’m glad my career was over a long time ago, let’s just leave it at that.”

A former Mariners scout now with another club walked into the press box after Hernandez was removed prior to the fifth inning and randomly bursted out: “Don’t take your eyes off that kid. If you do, you’ll miss something great.”

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After that start, I’d go onto see Hernandez three more times that season, two of them would result in 10-strikeout performances. Then I saw him twice the next season on a family trip to SoCal. By the time 2005 spring training rolled around, the entire baseball world knew Felix Hernandez was on the way. He’d start that season in Triple-A Tacoma and end it in Seattle.

While in Tacoma I had the opportunity to chat with the 19-year-old Felix a handful of times. One time I sat down with him on the Cheney Stadium bench before a game, two days after he started and shut out Memphis for seven innings. He was the talk of the organization, he already was King Felix, at least in name.

My first question to him was: “Do you know how good you already are?”

Felix: (blushes, smiling from ear to ear.)

I took that as a yes.

The rest, as they say, is history, but Hernandez is still writing his story. He’s 30, but he’s not done, and despite the overwhelming narrative surrounding his career workload, I don’t believe he’s done competing for Cy Young awards, either.

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Jason A. Churchill

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