SEATTLE — Even before he collected his ransom, King Felix wept.
On the way to signing his $175 million contract, Felix Hernandez exited an elevator at Safeco Field and walked into a surprise celebration, with Mariners staffers clad in yellow King’s Court T-shirts cheering and screaming and holding cardboard cutouts of his face. Hernandez shook his head, whispered “wow” and wiped at his eyes. He kept wiping, again and again and again, but the tears were elusive. He covered his face and paused. Wow.
“I promise you, I’m going to be the same guy,” Hernandez said, “except a better pitcher.”
If the day had ended there, it would’ve been heartfelt, cinematic and unforgettable. But Wednesday afternoon, one of the most incredible and reaffirming in Seattle sports history, would only grow more emotional and uplifting. The jaded would expect the storyline for an athlete signing the richest pitching contract in baseball history to be a narcissistic one, news that is good for your favorite team but bad for the eroding innocence of a sports culture burdened by excess.
Somehow, though, Hernandez is different. Oddly, this didn’t make you feel as if you had lost another sports star to an unfathomable level of wealth. There was a sincere joy attached. Strangely, you could react similar to how you would if a minimum-wage worker won employee of the month.
Common thought: “It couldn’t have happened to a better person.” Or: “Well deserved.” Or: “I don’t know how he puts up with the Mariners, but I’m sure glad he does.”
Have you ever been happier to see a rich person get richer?
Hernandez didn’t just get paid. He restored faith that this struggling Mariners organization is worthy of patience. He restored faith that Seattle can keep a mega star happy. And he restored faith that not every big-time pro athlete will shove loyalty into moving traffic in blind pursuit of every dollar available.
Instead, Hernandez knows when he has it good. He doesn’t need to acquire more fame or goad teams into a bidding war.
If he followed the modern sports model, he shouldn’t have made a seven-year commitment to the Mariners. He should’ve waited two more years, let his old contract expire and hit the free agent market as a 28-year-old former Cy Young winner who would’ve had every billionaire in baseball looking to invest in him. He should’ve griped the familiar star gripe and complained about the Mariners’ losing and desired to go some place where the team is better, where he can showcase his talent to a worldwide audience all the time. He should’ve joined Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson on the list of elite players who left the Mariners too soon.
Thankfully, that’s not the way Hernandez thinks.
During his seven-plus seasons in Seattle, he has done many things to distinguish himself: living up to the King nickname, the 2010 Cy Young Award, the perfect game last August. Now, he adds to the list the title of being The One Who Stayed.
Twice, Hernandez has spurned opportunities to flirt with free agency and remain the bedrock of the Mariners’ rebuilding efforts. He’s already joking about negotiating his next contract. He intends to be a Mariners lifer.
“I’m doing this because I love Seattle,” Hernandez said. “This has been my life. This has been my family.”
Sure, it’s easy to stay loyal when a franchise is giving you record-setting money. Hernandez understands that better than anyone. After fighting through tears five different times at the start of the news conference, Hernandez composed himself and made a promise.
“I’m not going to disappoint anybody,” he said. “I will do my best — better than my best.”
Is this guy real? Yes, absolutely authentic.
Pinch yourself. Don’t pinch him. He’s worth too much now.
Hernandez gave the same promise to Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln a day earlier when the two shook hands after both sides agreed to this deal. With tears in his eyes, Hernandez told Lincoln, “I won’t let you down.”
“I believe him,” Lincoln said Wednesday. “He is a man of his word. Of course, no one knows the future, but I have a great deal of confidence that he will be the linchpin of this franchise and get us back to the playoffs.
“I would not have given Jack the authority to negotiate this deal if it was just about Felix being a great pitcher. He’s so much more than that — his character, his work ethic, his love of the Mariners — and all of those things made it to where we knew we had to go as far as we could to keep him.”
It was an easy decision, even after factoring in the risk. The Mariners know Hernandez; they have raised him from teen to stardom. Yes, committing mega millions for seven years to a pitching arm is a fragile investment. You never know how much a shoulder or an elbow can take, and reports of questions about the longterm health of Hernandez’s elbow are concerning. But the Mariners’ doctors ultimately signed off on the deal, and general manager Jack Zduriencik said the contract is fully guaranteed. For the Mariners, the risk is obvious, but the reward is greater.
The ace in the gray three-piece suit — the one who spoke so passionately about the Mariners that Zduriencik joked, “You’re making me cry, Felix!” — should be here, at least until his 34th birthday. King Felix, The One Who Stayed, is a bottomless gift to a long-suffering sports community.
It’s an expensive bottomless gift, but we’ve been pestering the Mariners to spend more money, haven’t we?
Retaining Hernandez is more than a sound decision. It’s an energizing start to spring training for a lumbering, reshuffling baseball team.
It’s a watershed moment, a multilayered statement about the franchise and its franchise player, an unforgettable day bathing in the tears of the city’s most genuine star.