SEATTLE — The walk toward Safeco Field is a bit like a stroll through an old Western town, only without the tumbleweeds. For each of the dozen or so Seattle Mariners fans mingling around, there are roughly four people peddling kettle corn and peanuts.
It’s 40 minutes before first pitch, and Occidental Avenue practically echoes with inactivity.
Amid the food stands and program hawkers, the front window of a memorabilia shop advertises the city’s past (a Seattle Sonics pennant) and future (a Matt Flynn Seahawks jersey).
Ten minutes later, inside Safeco Field, a sparse crowd prepares for a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles. As Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez makes his way toward the bullpen for a pre-game warmup, several fans — most of them dressed in matching blue T-shirts and sitting in a pro-Hernandez section dubbed The King’s Court — shower him with applause.
The lone hero in a ghost town of sports stars has arrived.
While many Seattle legends have walked off in the sunset (Edgar Martinez, Walter Jones, Kasey Keller), found new towns (Alex Rodriguez, Jake Locker, Isaiah Thomas, the Seattle Sonics) or lost that gunslinger’s swagger (Ichiro Suzuki and Lauren Jackson), and while other budding stars, like Kevin Durant and Adam Jones, have blossomed in other parts of the country, only King Felix remains.
That he plays a position that involves standing alone on a mound, and that he’ll be the Mariners’ lone representative at this week’s All-Star Game in Kansas City, serve as appropriate metaphors in a city starving for athletic stars.
“He’s the man in Seattle,” Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan said. “But he’s earned it. He stays out of trouble, and he gives a lot of trouble to the opposing offense too. There’s not much more you can ask from the guy.”
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On this night, a Tuesday when Hernandez is making his final home start before the All-Star break, the Mariners’ Cy Young ace is living up to the billing for the first five innings. The King’s Court, a section of fans near the left-field foul pole that attends every Hernandez start and includes about 1,600 fans for this game, is counting down each of his eight strikeouts. Coming off a 128-pitch performance, Hernandez throws 90 more pitches but loses his knockout punch in a four-run sixth inning.
In typical Mariners fashion, the putrid offense overshadows the team’s superstar by flailing into the seventh inning before finally delivering a hit. The Orioles chase Hernandez from the game in the sixth, and the Mariners have to rally just to get their ace a no-decision in a 5-4 loss.
Afterward, Hernandez is typically gracious and unaffected. He credits Baltimore’s aggressive approach at the plate to the fateful sixth inning and jokes that things might have gone better had the King’s Court not switched to blue T-shirts.
“We’ve got to go back to the yellow shirts,” he said.
It’s vintage Hernandez, not only because of his typical post-game disposition but also because of the lack of run support. Countless victories have gotten away from the 26-year-old ace due to a lackluster Mariners offense over the years, and yet Hernandez keeps on plugging away with a smile on his face.
“I never get frustrated,” Hernandez explains with a shrug afterward. “I just try to do my job and try to help the Seattle Mariners win games.”
Says manager Eric Wedge of his star right-hander’s inability to pile up victories: “Once we become a more complete team, that’ll take care of itself.”
A day after Hernandez’s no-decision against Baltimore, Wedge has nothing but positive things to say about the Mariners’ ace. Hernandez frustrated Wedge when he managed against the Mariners, but the right-hander from Venezuela has done nothing of the sort in recent years.
“If I could have had a best-case scenario about what this guy’s all about — on and off the field, the type of teammate he is, the type of competitor he is, the way he feels about the Seattle Mariners, the way he goes about his business and the way he leads by example — it couldn’t be any better than what I’d hoped for,” Wedge said.
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In a city that has gotten used to losing young stars to the lure of money, underachievement or — in the case of Durant — relocation, Hernandez is the rare example of one who has grown up before our eyes. Signed as a 16-year-old young phenom, Hernandez started generating the buzz as a teenager and was anointed as a star-in-waiting during his summer with the Everett AquaSox in 2003.
Throughout it all, Mariners fans always seemed to have one part of their hearts resigned to the possibility that Hernandez might not A) live up to the billing, or B) stick around for the peak of his career. King Felix has done both of those things, with his 2010 signing of a five-year, $78 million contract serving as the it’s-OK-to-fall-in-love-with-him-now moment.
While there could still be another opportunity to move on — be it by another contract before the age of 29 or by unforeseen demands of a trade — Hernandez seems like he genuinely loves his situation in Seattle.
“Why would I go to another place?” he said last week. “I love it here. It’s the first organization I signed with when I was 16, and they gave me a chance to be in the big leagues, so I love it.”
Hernandez, who now spends only a couple weeks per year in Venezuela and considers Seattle his home, said this city has made him feel like a comfortable star. Fans shower him with adornment but don’t get too pushy in regards to his privacy.
“They leave me alone,” he said. “They’re so respectful. That’s why I love this city. It’s truly amazing.”
Not that Hernandez walks the streets without attention. The 2010 Cy Young Award winner has become one of the more recognizable sports stars to ever call this city home, which is why teammate Jason Vargas said Hernandez can’t completely fly under the radar.
“No chance,” Vargas said. “I saw him at Benihana (a Japanese restaurant in downtown Seattle) one time, and he tried to sneak in and out of there, and he got stuck doing photos for about 25 minutes. He’s in charge here.”
Part of the allure of Hernandez is that he doesn’t carry the air of a typically unapproachable superstar.
“He’s not standoffish,” said Ryan, one of the clubhouse leaders. “He’s not someone that’s going to run away from the spotlight, or just a friendly conversation. It’s refreshing to have a guy like that around.
“… He’s still a kid at heart. He probably still enjoys playing the game as much as he did when he was 5, 6 years old. That’s partly what makes him great — both as a player and a teammate.”
Said Vargas, who is one of Hernandez’s closer friends on the team: “He doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s always got a good attitude, no matter what happens. No matter how it goes (on the mound), he’s always the same guy.”
Almost literally, Hernandez is the kid that Seattle has watched blossom from a wide-eyed child into a young man of which it can be proud. He’s become a team leader, has been married for more than four years and has already won one Cy Young award.
“He’s happy in life,” Ryan said. “He has what he wants. He enjoys the hard work and the preparation, and when he gets on the mound he’s just having fun. And why wouldn’t you when your stuff’s that good?”
When Hernandez represents Seattle at this week’s All-Star Game, he’ll do it with extreme pride. He’s come to love the city as much as it loves him, and wearing a Mariners hat is something he does not take lightly.
“It’s not only the city but this organization,” Hernandez said while standing in front of a locker that holds full-sized football helmets from both Washington State and Washington. “It’s truly an honor. There have been so many guys; it’s unbelievable.”
Still in his prime and a good bet to make multiple future All-Star games, Hernandez carries the city of Seattle’s athletic hopes on his shoulders. He said he’s still too young to predict whether he’ll finish his career here, but it’s safe to say that the marriage between city and player have been a success thus far.
“He loves it here,” Vargas said, “and they love him.”
Standing in the only major-league clubhouse he’s ever called his own, Hernandez nodded his head last Tuesday night and drank in the love of a city desperate for superstars.
“This,” he said, “is my home right here.”
With no other superstar to pin their hopes on, fans in Seattle will take that for as long as Hernandez will let them.