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Originally published Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 7:43 PM

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Felix Hernandez's new responsibility: Face of the franchise

Felix Hernandez is the face of the franchise and a $175-million man now. While pitchers don't have much impact on attendance because they play so infrequently, there's no question that Hernandez is at the forefront of the Mariners' marketing plans, and he helps shape the perception of this franchise in ways that defy the fact he appears in only 20 percent of their games.

Times staff columnist

Felix Hernandez's Mariners commercials

2011: Larry Bernandez

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Once again, gold accompanied the King.

As Felix Hernandez made his first home start of the season, a Safeco Field crowd of 22,917 greeted him mostly wearing gold King Felix T-shirts and waving "K" placards, all part of the Mariners' "Supreme Court" promotion. It wasn't as dramatic as the first time the Mariners did this, when 39,204 people came to Safeco last August to celebrate the perfect game he had thrown in his previous start.

Still, the mission was accomplished: to make sure everyone recognizes it's a special occasion when Hernandez takes the mound.

He is the face of the franchise and a $175-million man now, and with that investment comes the challenge of making money off the star. While pitchers don't have much impact on attendance because they play so infrequently, there's no question that Hernandez is at the forefront of the Mariners' marketing plans, and he helps shape the perception of this franchise in ways that defy the fact he appears in only 20 percent of their games.

"He's front and center because he's the one fans have connected with the most," Mariners vice president of marketing Kevin Martinez said. "While he doesn't play every day, his presence is felt."

When the Mariners were paying Ichiro, their former franchise player, $18 million a year, they used to intimate that his international fame helped the team receive a substantial return on investment. Though Hernandez is perhaps the best in baseball at what he does, he doesn't have the same worldwide cachet, at least not yet.

He's a mega talent who is often obstructed by a struggling franchise. We need only to compare his low win totals to his overpowering statistics to understand how limited individual greatness can be in this game. As much as we value Hernandez right now, we won't fully grasp his dominance until he is the ace of a contending team and can turn any big-time situation into an advantageous one for the Mariners.

The Mariners made a baseball decision, not a butts-in-seats decision, when they committed to paying Hernandez, 27, about $750,000 per start for the next seven years. Still, there's a great value to having Hernandez beyond how well he performs every fifth day.

He's a Mariners-raised star who gives them credibility and hope as they try to build a winner mostly through acquiring and developing young talent. He's one of the most genuine and approachable stars Seattle has ever had. And when he's at his overpowering best, he can bring a dissatisfied fan base together.

"I really admire this young man," Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln said after Hernandez signed his $175 million deal in February. "I would not have allowed this to happen if I had any questions about his character."

Hernandez's character makes him easier to market, too. The Mariners started the King's Court — the section of gold-wearing, K-waving fans down the left-field line who cheer for Hernandez during every home start (the Supreme Court is an enhanced version of that concept) — after King Felix won the 2010 Cy Young Award. Hernandez salutes the King's Court as he takes the mound, and he's genuinely touched that he has his own cheering section.

The Venezuelan pitcher has also improved his English enough to be an enthusiastic and entertaining contributor to the Mariners' popular commercials, whether it was the creation of his Larry Bernandez alter ego, or his ventriloquist dummy bit, or his new "High Heat Hot Sauce." If the Mariners get to perform on a postseason stage and enhance his stardom, Hernandez has the charisma to be a good celebrity endorser — a perk he doesn't currently enjoy.

Hernandez's on-field greatness and popularity makes it easy for the Mariners to sell him, but his level of engagement makes the possibilities endless. He's simply willing to do whatever it takes to make people believe in the Mariners. That has been a hard sell over the past dozen years, but it's just as difficult to be cynical about Hernandez.

"He makes it real easy for the organization," Martinez said. "He kind of markets himself. He's an elite athlete and a special human being. That resonates anywhere, but it especially resonates in Seattle. It's as real as it gets with Felix.

"It's a pleasure to work with him. It's a joy to share ideas. He listens to ideas, and he has ideas to make things better. And he's truly touched whenever people do something for him. He wants to have the fans support the team, and he wants to see this organization win."

The Mariners have slogans such as, "Watch The King While Being Treated Like One." With Hernandez, it goes beyond a clever way to sell premium seats. When he's pitching, he uses the crowd as motivation and tries to do all he can to make it a special experience. When he signed his monster contract, he promised over and over not to "let anyone down."

If you're lucky, Hernandez will make 16 or 17 starts at home this season. Until the Mariners improve, he won't pitch before packed stadiums and justify his contract through attendance.

But is Hernandez worth $25 million a year to the Mariners?

Absolutely. He is their credibility.

Right now, he markets the Mariners as much as they market him.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @JerryBrewer.

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