After completing a rehab start with the Everett AquaSox on Aug. 14 at Funko Field, Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez headed to the clubhouse. As he made his way through the chain-link fence that separates the left-field concourse from the clubhouses at Everett Memorial Stadium, a chorus of voices yelled out, “Hey, Felix!”
They were voices Hernandez remembered.
“Let them through,” he said while gesturing to the security guard.
What occurred next was a reunion between The King and the Everett family that in 2003 helped introduce a promising 17-year-old flame-thrower to professional baseball and the Pacific Northwest.
On Thursday night, Hernandez’s long tenure with the Mariners will come to an end with his final start of the season. He is in the last year of a seven-year, $175 million contract and the understanding is both sides plan to move on after the season.
As Hernandez’s final days as a Mariner wind down, those who were there for the beginning aren’t thinking about his precipitous decline in recent years, but rather how his all-star career first got started.
Jim and Kathy Chapman served as a host family for the AquaSox for 26 years, stopping in 2017 after they both retired.
Over the years, they housed some future major leaguers, including Gregory Halman, who starred for the AquaSox in 2006 and 2007, and Luis Valbuena, who played for Everett in 2005.
None became as prominent as King Felix.
When the AquaSox host family coordinator at the time approached Kathy about hosting Hernandez, he didn’t mention that the youngster could touch 98 mph on the radar gun or spin a nasty curveball; just that he was 17 years old and barely spoke English.
Kathy said, “Yeah, of course we’ll take him.”
She soon learned that Hernandez was one of the most-coveted young international arms out there. The Valencia, Venezuela, native had signed for $710,000 and entered the 2003 season with a tremendous amount of hype.
Kathy was excited to host possibly the next big thing in the Mariners’ farm system. Her daughter Liz was not.
“I was kind of over baseball boys and sharing my house and sharing my space,” said Liz Chapman, who was 24 at the time. “But my mom was like, ‘No, this kid is going to be something.’”
Mom’s evaluation was spot on.
At 17 — 4.3 years younger than the average player in the Northwest League, according to Baseball Reference — Hernandez posted a 2.22 ERA and struck out 11.9 batters per nine innings over 69 innings. Lineups boasting recent college graduates did not phase the teen whatsoever.
“His arm was electric, his composure and the way he conducted himself was above his years,” longtime AquaSox trainer Spyder Webb said. “He just had the look about him and a feel about him that you knew he was going to be really, really special.”
Gary Wheelock, the AquaSox pitching coach in 2003, said Hernandez is the highest-graded pitcher he saw in his 31 years as a pitching coach.
Webb places Hernandez on the ultimate tier in terms of players he’s seen in Single-A baseball, alongside only Ken Griffey Jr., who Webb saw play while both were with the Bellingham Mariners in 1987.
“When you saw Junior, you go, ‘That guy’s going to be an All-Star,’ ” Webb said. “When you saw Felix, you said that arm is special and he won’t be riding around on buses very long. He’s going to be riding first-class seats on an airplane.”
It wasn’t just the dynamic arm and gaudy numbers that made Hernandez stand out during his time in Everett. It was an innate confidence that allowed him to approach his first pro season with little fear.
“I just felt like he knew that he was a little different and a little special,” Webb said. “Felix was not an arrogant guy. … Anybody that’s really worth a damn, has a degree of confidence in themselves — and I’m a firm believer in that. If you’re really good, you carry yourself in a little different way than the average folk.”
But that swagger was never a problem in the AquaSox clubhouse. Rather, Hernandez was a valuable and cherished teammate. He was passionate and loyal, and perhaps nothing demonstrated that more than a “Kids Day” game on the afternoon of Aug. 14, 2003, against Eugene.
In an 8-0 shutout of the Emeralds, a hit batter sparked a benches-clearing brawl and the baby-faced Hernandez sprinted out to defend his teammates — and he was seeing red.
Webb recalled thinking one thing when the scuffle erupted: “Where’s Felix?”
“I made a point to go find him, because the last thing you need is a guy with a broken right hand because he threw a punch at somebody,” Webb said. “This sounds a little bad, but if someone breaks their hand in a brawl, you feel sad. But if Felix breaks his hand, you feel really sad.”
While he was self-assured and fiery on the mound, Hernandez was unassuming off the diamond.
“(He was) shy, appreciative, grateful,” Kathy said.
Hernandez entered his first professional season with a limited grasp of the English language. Thankfully, the Chapmans also hosted Venezuelan pitcher Juan Ovalles that season. Ovalles was bilingual and helped translate.
Just like any 17-year-old, Hernandez had his quirks.
Kathy fondly recalls making Hernandez his favorite dinner, two microwavable teriyaki chicken breasts from Costco with a pot of rice, which she prepared after AquaSox home games. Eventually, Kathy learned how to prepare arepas, a patty-like dish that consists of cornmeal, salt, water and dough and is cooked in hot oil.
Hernandez loved to call Liz Chapman’s 5-year-old daughter, Jazmyn, “Baby,” which irritated Jazmyn to no end at the time. But Jasmyn, now a student at Arizona State University, fondly remembers sharing her grandmother’s home with Hernandez and how they read picture books together when both were beginning to grasp the intricacies of the English language.
Ultimately, what stands out to Kathy about the King’s early days as a pro was his loyalty. Even back then, Kathy recalled, Hernandez said he planned to be a Mariner for as long as he could.
“He told me then, ‘I will always play for the Mariners,’” Kathy said. “‘They did me right.’”
Hernandez’s loyalty to Seattle never wavered, even though he was the star of some miserable teams. During Hernandez’s first 14 seasons with the Mariners, the club posted a 1,071-1,197 record and didn’t make the playoffs. But he never demanded a trade — at least not publicly — and he signed the aforementioned monster contract with Seattle rather than test the free-agent market.
The King’s Court — the popular Felix-themed fan section down the left-field line at T-Mobile Park that’s been available for each of his home starts since 2011 — will be active one last time Thursday night. Fans undoubtedly will cheer him on with their iconic blue-and-yellow “K” cards.
Kathy Chapman also will be in attendance for Hernandez’s final start.
Through it all, what resonates with Kathy about King Felix is that fame, fortune and success haven’t lessened his gratitude toward those who helped him get where he is.
For example, after reconnecting with Kathy following his second rehab start with Everett this past summer, Hernandez messaged her, writing “Thanks for all the help in 2003.”
When he first reached the big leagues in 2005, Hernandez treated the Chapmans to a dinner at PF Chang’s to let them know he wouldn’t forget them.
That’s the Felix Hernandez Kathy said she will remember.
And that version of Felix transcends what kind of pitcher he is on the mound or what uniform he wears.
“I’m just happy that I was able to give him some stability and some support to go with it,” Kathy said. “Felix did everything himself. There’s nothing I did to get him there.
“I’ve just been impressed with the man he became. He’s just loyal and gentle and an incredible pitcher and an incredible person.”
Josh Horton covers the AquaSox for the Herald. Follow him on Twitter, @JoshHortonEDH