By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — Felix Hernandez is great for a lot of reasons. There’s the movement on his fastball, that devastating changeup, his hyper-competitive nature on the mound.
But for long-suffering Mariners fans, one reason trumps all of those when it comes to loving the Mariners ace.
That love goes both ways.
“I care about the people in Seattle,” Hernandez said after signing a new contract Wednesday that will keep him in Seattle through the 2019 season. “I care because they’ve always supported me. I’m doing this because I love this city, because I want to stay. That’s why I’m doing this, because I don’t want to go anywhere else, I want to stay in Seattle. I love this place. This has been my life. This has been my family.”
During a tear-filled press conference in which Hernandez officially signed his new $175 million contract, we were reminded that even in today’s world of playing for the highest bidder, or demanding a trade to a playoff-bound team, there are athletes who still take pride in loyalty, who still choose home over maximizing the value of a contract. And let’s not kid ourselves, money was a factor here. As much as Hernandez wanted to stay a Mariner, he wasn’t going to take a big hometown discount to do so.
But still, for a long-suffering organization that has seen too many losses; seen too many superstars, from Ken Griffey Jr., to Alex Rodriguez to Randy Johnson leave Seattle behind, keeping Hernandez was critical.
“We were committed to keeping him here a long time,” said Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik. “He’s a young, talented guy. We all recognize that. The best thing I can say is, he’s ours. He’s ours and we kept him.”
And sure, you can be cynical and make jokes like, “I’d be emotional too if I just got that much money,” or “Maybe he was crying because he realized he signed on for an extra five years of Mariners run support,” but Hernandez’s emotion was raw and real. Flawed or not, the Mariners are the only organization Hernandez has known since he signed as a 16-year-old and began his professional career with the Everett AquaSox. This really has become home for him.
Twice now, Hernandez has chosen to sign long-term extensions well before getting the chance to test the free-agent waters. Twice he had a chance to see just how much his devastating arsenal of pitches was worth on the open market, and twice he decided, “Nah, I’m good here.” And again, Hernandez did just sign the biggest contract for a pitcher in baseball history, so we can’t pretend money didn’t play a role. But if you think he signed for a lot of money Wednesday, imagine what he could have gotten on the open market in 2015 had he enjoyed two more productive seasons heading into free agency as a 28-year-old.
“Never considered it,” Hernandez said of free agency. “I always say that this is home, this is my life. (It’s) probably because I’m different. It’s the way my family raised me. If you feel comfortable in a place — now I’m the reporter — if you feel comfortable and happy and you believe in people, are you going to go anywhere?”
Hernandez isn’t going anywhere, not for a long, long time anyway. This contract has a full no-trade clause, a first in Mariners history, and is fully guaranteed, and he and Zduriencik were already joking that they need to start talking soon about his next extension. It was that kind of press conference, going from light-hearted as pitcher and GM traded barbs, to heartfelt as Hernandez thanked his family and promised Mariners fans that better days are ahead, all while fighting back tears.
“I’m not going to disappoint anybody,” he said. “I will do my best, more than my best, to get to the playoffs and not disappoint Howard (Lincoln) and Chuck (Armstrong) and not disappoint you guys. I’ll tell you this, we’re going to make the playoffs, we’re going in the right direction, we’ve got a lot of young talent, and we’re going to be one of the toughest teams in the league.”
And that was another very important part of the Mariners re-signing Hernandez. Not only did it send a message to the rest of baseball that Hernandez is here to stay (sorry, Yankees), it also showed that, despite the team’s struggles, Hernandez likes the direction of this club. This contract won’t change much about the 2013 Mariners, but it will certainly give something for Zduriencik to bring up when negotiating with free agents down the road.
“It’s a great message,” Zduriencik said. “It’s a really great message. We’ve been building this thing. There’s some lumps and bumps along the way, and we’ve taken some criticism. But when you have your own guys believing in what you’re doing, and you have your best player in your organization and one of the best in the game buying into what you’re doing here. … He sees it.”
Hernandez likes what he sees, and he isn’t going anywhere. Not at the trade deadline, not after this season, not in 2015 when he could have been a free agent. The Seattle superstar who actually likes being a Seattle superstar is here to stay, which is just the way wanted it all along.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.