Like Puget Sound and Mt. Rainier, Felix Hernandez has become a precious Seattle landmark. No matter how disappointing the Mariners are, no matter how much rain, sleet and even snow (jobs) they produce, King Felix always delivers.

Here he is again, tied for the most victories in baseball at 14-6, an absolute rock in a game of consistency, brilliant as a Pacific Northwest sunset.

It was 10 years ago this month that he made his first start for the Mariners, just a babe on the mound at 19 years and 118 days.

Which makes July 4, 2002, one of the most important days in Seattle franchise history. It was the day the Mariners signed a raw, wide-eyed 16-year-old prospect from Venezuela.

Think the $710,000 signing bonus was worth it?

Especially given that the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees were hot on his trail and, as Hernandez says, offered a few more bucks than did Seattle.

“I think I made the right decision,” he said, smiling, when he talked with B/R recently. “The way they treated my family, I thought this is the right place to be.”

Hernandez is a bit of a different cat, in a very good way, and not only on the mound. He is intelligent, personable and loyal, which all factors into how he landed in Seattle in the first place.

The Mariners first started watching him when he was 14.

“When I was pitching in Little League, I would see all of these people in the stands,” Hernandez said. “And I was like, ‘Who are all of these people?'”

Scouts, he was told.

They’re here to see you.

“So I would try to throw harder,” Hernandez said, a perfectly natural reaction but usually an awful idea. Because the harder a pitcher tries to throw, the better chance he has of losing his control.

That didn’t happen with the future King.

He ratcheted up his intensity, and the level of his game, because, he said, “I like those kinds of challenges.”

He still remembers the first time he saw Bob Engle, the Mariners’ senior adviser to the vice president and general manager at the time.

“Great guy,” Hernandez said. “He was watching me from a corner of [Seattle’s Venezuelan] Academy with his glasses half off, like this.”

Hernandez lowered his face, mimicking a man peering over reading glasses positioned halfway down his nose.   

Today, Engle is the vice president of international scouting for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He laughs when he hears Hernandez’s glasses-half-off memory.

“That doesn’t ring a bell and he’s making me sound old now, and I’m old enough,” Engle said, chuckling. “I can tell you this: He is probably one of most first-class people I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with in this game.

“He is everything on and off the field that you ever want to see.”

It was a scout by the name of Pedro Avila who first spotted Hernandez and recommended him to the Mariners. Avila bird-dogged Hernandez for more than a year before Emilio Carrasquel, another Seattle scout, invited the pitcher to the team’s Venezuelan baseball academy.

The Carrasquels are a prominent baseball family in Venezuela. Emilio’s uncle, Chico, starred as a shortstop for the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Athletics and Baltimore Orioles in the 1950s. He was the first in an astoundingly good run of major league shortstops from the country that included Luis Aparicio, Dave Concepcion, Ozzie Guillen and Omar Vizquel.

Together with Engle, the relationship Avila and Carrasquel forged with Felix and his family was rock-solid.

But something else had happened that sent Hernandez’s imagination running toward the Pacific Northwest as well: the 1998 Randy Johnson trade with Houston that sent minor leaguers Freddy Garcia, John Halama and Carlos Guillen to Seattle.

Garcia, Hernandez’s countryman, went 18-6 for the famed 2001 Mariners club that finished 116-46. Then he won 32 more games for the Mariners over the next three seasons combined before he was traded to the Chicago White Sox.

At home in Venezuela, Hernandez was enthralled. He made it a point to watch as many of Garcia’s starts as he could.

One game from that era remains crystallized in Hernandez’s mind: Garcia’s Game 2 start in the 2001 American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees. Working on just three days of rest after beating Cleveland 6-2 in Game 4 of the AL Division Series, Garcia pitched well over 7.1 innings but emerged with a tough 3-2 loss to the Yanks.

“I was like, ‘He’s good,'” Hernandez said.

Hernandez was 15. He and his family had a direct connection with the Mariners now in Avila, Carrasquel and Engle.

More and more, it was easy to envision himself one day wearing a Mariners uniform.

“He was a young man who had good size,” Engle said. “Good arm strength, for a young man, [his pitches] had good rotation, good breaking-ball potential. He had a pro delivery, what I would call a pro delivery.”

What still stands out to Engle to this day was the moment when he asked Hernandez where he learned that delivery.

“I taught it to myself by watching major league pitchers,” the kid told the scout.

“I thought that was quite impressive for a 14-year-old, 15-year-old,” Engle said. “The story takes its own path and, obviously, we know the results today.”

But they couldn’t know them yet, not as the Mariners pursued Hernandez and waited until, under major league rules, he turned 16, the legal signing age.

So they watched and waited. Waited and watched. All the while working to box out whatever other teams picked up the scent.

“I don’t think there was a race to get him away from the other guys because the family, particularly the father, was very well-grounded with what he wanted to do,” Engle said. “He knew how he wanted to assist and direct his son.

“We conveyed a program and the way we wanted to go about things. Ultimately, it was their decision. I don’t know of any other club that spent as much time in the house with Felix and his father and mother. That was probably the key.”

Man-hours? Engle couldn’t begin to add them up.

“It was considerable,” he said. “We had many appointments, many meetings. You can pretty well tell when things are going well, or if it’s tough going. We seemed to have good makeup and good chemistry among all of us. I think that was the key.”

Said Hernandez: “I like when people are honest and talk to your face. They told my dad they would send me to the United States right away [to start his professional career in the minor leagues], not to the Dominican Republic.

“I didn’t want to go to the Dominican.”

Not when Garcia, Guillen and others were right there in Seattle. Not when the Mariners were still a juggernaut and he felt he could reach out and grab the major leagues right then.

“That was a big point,” Engle said. “His ability and his potential, what he demonstrated at the time was that he should go immediately to the States. Looking at his progression, looking at how quickly he moved, it basically was a no-brainer for all of us.”

So, no, the Yankees and the Braves didn’t have a chance. Even if the money was larger.

When the time came, Avila and Carrasquel sat down with Felix Sr. at a restaurant near the Hernandez home to work the deal.

“My father called me and said they were offering this,” Hernandez said. “I think this is the right amount of money. And you’re not going to the Dominican Republic.”

Hernandez told his father: “Let’s do it.”

The Mariners sent him right to Seattle when he signed, introducing the 16-year-old to the organization during a three-game series, suiting him up for batting practice and allowing him to luxuriate in his new surroundings.

Como esta, nino?” Garcia asked.

What’s up, kid?

Some 13 years later, it is a phrase Hernandez still remembers vividly. The way he remembers it, he spent most of that weekend hanging around the lockers of Garcia and Guillen.

Now, it is his turn to take young pitchers under his wing, and when he does, willingly and eagerly, he does so while wearing No. 34 on the back of his jersey. Yep, same as Garcia.

Years pass. At 38, Garcia is still pitching, for Monterrey in the Mexican League.

“I talk with Freddy quite a bit,” Hernandez said.

At 29, Hernandez now boasts one AL Cy Young Award (2010) on his resume, with the possibility of more ahead. He threw a perfect game against Tampa Bay in 2012. The guy even wore a Kuma Bear hat in support of teammate Hisashi Iwakuma during Iwakuma’s no-hitter Wednesday.

Like the Space Needle, it is impossible to imagine the Seattle landscape without him.

And him without it.

“I like the city,” said Hernandez, who flashed his loyalty by signing a seven-year, $175 million deal in 2013. “What I want is to make the playoffs. The fans need it. The city needs it.

“Last year with Robinson Cano, we came close.”

Now, as has too often been the case despite his glittering work, it’s wait till next year in Seattle.

But as ever, the ace remains.   

“That tells you something,” Engle said. “It transmits something about Felix’s head and heart.

“If there’s one thing I can say about him, he’s first class on the field and off the field, which is just as important. We’re all proud of him and he should be proud of himself and his accomplishments, and the way he’s handled himself for so many years.”


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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