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Mariners RHP Félix Hernández
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Drayer: Doesn’t get much better than what Mariners had in King Félix

Félix Hernández will make his likely final start for the Mariners on Thursday. (Getty)

In the blink of an eye…

Fifteen years. Can it possibly be 15 years since the eagerly-awaited arrival of Félix Hernández was witnessed by the 28,148 in attendance for a Thursday afternoon contest between the Mariners and Tigers at Comerica Park (and not many others as the game was not televised)?

Fifteen years since a Major Leaguer first saw the 97 mph fastball with movement, the diving, high-octane two-seamer, the fledgling wicked changeup and the breaking ball that Twins manager Ron Gardenhire believed hailed from the underworld?

“Poise?” Gardenhire scoffed when asked about the 19 year old who just threw eight shutout innings against his team in just his second big league start. “I don’t think we’re talking about poise here, I think we’re talking about a 97 mile-an-hour fastball with a curveball from hell. I think you can overlook the poise part. Let’s just say great stuff.”

The Mariners’ phenom

There was no question Félix lived up to his billing. The big kid with the powerful arm, confident from day one, with “El Rey” (translation: The King) inscribed on his glove. We saw the emotion. We saw the fire we heard he displayed while coming up in the minor leagues. Stories of batters getting plunked after hitting home runs off him in the minors made more sense when we saw him in person on the hill.

As fierce as he was on the hill, off the hill there was no mistaking that he was still a teenager. Just three years removed from his home and the security of his family in Venezuela, he still had the baby face. Teammates would look out for him in his early years, most notably Joel Piñeiro, who would linger close by when Félix was being interviewed, encouraging him to use his English.

Mike Hargrove, Félix’s first manager with the Mariners, perhaps understood more than anyone at the time that this was not just a special talent he was dealing with but a very young person as well. A person who had high expectations and wanted to please everyone around him. When he came out to take the ball from Félix in the early days, Hargrove would put one hand on his right arm, the other on the side of his face as he had quiet words with him before sending him back to the dugout. The move was fatherly, protective almost. Félix back then often pointed out that he was the baby in his family – clearly the adored baby in his family. He was the same in the Mariners family as well.

At home with the Mariners

As we watched Félix grow up in the organization, we came to realize that the love flowed both ways. For some, it was hard to see or believe. Surely he would fly the coup when given the opportunity. A generational talent like his had to be bound for the big stage. That was the thought in New York; Félix Hernández, future Yankee was a foregone conclusion. Trip after trip, scores of reporters would mob him at his locker in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium trying to get him to tip his hand in some way, but Félix would just answer that he was happy in Seattle.

He was happy as a Mariner. Fans wanted to believe, with the masthead of Lookout Landing proclaiming for years that “Félix is ours and you can’t have him.” The cynics, however, would view Félix’s words to the public as just talk, Félix saying the right thing. But behind the scenes there was absolutely no indication that would lead one to believe otherwise. He had found a new home and had no intention of leaving.

“I don’t do this because I care about money. I do this because I care about the people of Seattle,” Félix said at a Feb. 13, 2014 press conference following the signing of his seven-year contract. “I do this because I love this city. I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to stay here. It was a decision I’ve made for a long time. I’m happy here. I don’t want to go to a place I don’t feel happy, I don’t feel comfortable. 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.”

While teammates, general managers, managers and pitching coaches had all come and gone in his tenure as a Mariner, the constants had been the people. Félix noted that those who worked at Safeco Field had always treated him like he was their son. He had developed a relationship with the fans, as well. Never a reluctant superstar, he perhaps had more appreciation for those who followed and believed in him than any player that has donned a Mariners jersey. It was his “King’s Court.” Those were his people. He would point to them on his way to the outfield to begin his warmups on each pitch day. He was happy to venture into the crowds on promotion nights in full uniform to hand out his bobbleheads or greet the millionth fan. His relationship with the fans has been special and the appreciation real.

The showman

Perhaps some of what we saw on the mound from Félix was for the fans, was for show. There was always extra flair, extra flourish. From the pirouette after his final warm-up pitch to the hop over the first base line when entering or exiting the field, to the playful banter with Adrián Beltré when the Mariners took on the Rangers, the field has always been Félix’s stage. From the joyous exclamation following the completion of his perfect game to the roar of “This is my house” after dominating the Toronto Blue Jays (who had taken over Safeco Field the previous two days), his passion for his game was always on full display. It was, after all, Félix Day.

Félix Day is Félix Gets To Pitch day. On Félix Day you more often than not will hear him before you see him. While most starters go about their start days in quiet focus, Félix most often enters the room yelling with an extra bounce in his step. Félix Day extended to days he wasn’t pitching in a big league game. I’ve seen Félix get pumped up for sim games coming off injury. I’ve seen Félix turn it up for spring training games as well. A chance to face hitters, put on a show for a crowd of any size? Why not?

One spring game stands out in my memory. In a back field, minor league game in Peoria, Félix was scheduled to get his work. The two blocks of metal bleachers were completely filled, the two rows of scout seats and every inch of fence behind home plate taken over by minor leaguers straining to get an up close and personal look at the King. In the first row of bleachers on the home side were family: Félix’s dad and family friends. It could have been a little league game on any field across the country but no, that was the Cy Young Award winner out on the hill. As Félix went about his work, there were hushed oohs and ahs from the players behind home plate. There was also playful banter, heckling, in Spanish from the family section. Félix initially looked annoyed before shooting back his own comments, smiling as he turned toward the outfield. No field too small for the King. He got his work in that day and enjoyed it.

Everything changes

Félix still gets up for Félix Day, but there is a wariness about him. In past seasons when he struggled he could blame injury, or perhaps it was that he wasn’t quite right with his training program in the offseason. He’s been the last to acknowledge (publicly at least) that he’s not the same. It has been hard to come to terms with as he has always had such a strong sense of self. He’s Félix. He’s the King. He’s the same guy now as he was when he was when he was on the rise.

He’s not the same on the hill, however. The physical gifts are no longer what they were, yet the feeling of reaching back and having his fastball or best changeup no doubt is still there, and he perhaps felt for a long time that he could indeed find it.

His future is hazy. Maybe a change of scenery if the opportunity is given will jump start the process of adapting to what he has now, a process that many hoped would begin years ago. I believe he has the pitches to still be very effective, but he can’t get by on just being Félix. Like the kid who sails through high school without cracking a textbook and discovers in college that study skills established earlier are necessary for success, the foundation just isn’t there. He’s always worked, but he’s worked with what’s worked in the past. A new path must be found.

To see him compete, be the stopper, do his best to put his team on his back when there wasn’t the support around him year after year should tell you about everything you need to know about what is inside of him. If he is healthy enough, a future should be available. The Mariners were unable to reward his loyalty with a postseason appearance, but perhaps he can work his way into an opportunity with another.

As Félix’s journey as a Mariner winds down, the highlights come storming back. Félix Day was must-watch for over a decade. The perfect game. Crashing Daisuke Matsuzaka’s debut at Fenway with 1-hitter on April 11, 2007. The 1-0 wins at Yankee Stadium. The grand slam off Johan Santana. The evolution of the ridiculous changeup.

All the while, Félix being Félix. It doesn’t get much better than what the Mariners had in Félix Hernández.

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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