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From the start, M's phenom Hernandez had star quality
Seattle Times staff columnist
The excited phone calls from Venezuelan scout Pedro Avila started coming a little more than five years ago.
He had a live one. A big, strong, 14-year-old righthander named Felix Hernandez with a fastball already creeping close to the 90s, who was drawing more and more attention every time he took the mound.
"Pedro kept talking about him. Kept repeating to us about how much ability this guy had," Bob Engle, the Mariners' director of international operations, said yesterday. "You could tell he was very excited about Felix."
Two years later, Engel saw Hernandez for the first time in a showcase game held at the same time as the Caribbean World Series. By then, Hernandez was beginning to get the attention of the entire Mariners' organization.
He had auditioned at their baseball academy, a 45-minute drive from Hernandez's hometown of Valencia in northwest Venezuela. He threw live sessions for Mariners scouts. He threw bullpen sessions, and he was as impressive off the field as he was on.
"For a young 16-year-old, he seemed to have his own mind," Engle said. "He had his own aims and objectives as to where he wanted to be and what he wanted to do. I think that's what separates him right now.
"He threw well [in the showcase game], but he didn't exactly blow everyone away. But he was certainly someone you wanted to see again. It was a good reference point. You knew he was someone you were going to see a couple of, three more times."
Starting pitchers: M's Felix Hernandez (1-1, 0.69) vs. Runelvys Hernadez (8-10, 4.93)
Tickets: Entering the weekend, there were 18,000 remaining.
The Mariners weren't the only team interested in Hernandez. The New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves also were recruiting him. But fellow Venezuelan Freddy Garcia was pitching for the Mariners at the time, a strong recruiting tool for the Mariners.
Just like college basketball coaches chasing a blue-chip recruit, Engle, Avila and scout Emilio Carrasquel visited the Hernandez family in their middle-class home in Valencia, an industrial town of 1.2 million, the capital of Carabobo State and a baseball hotbed.
It was in that house that Felix and his older brother Moises, 21, a pitcher in the Baltimore organization, shared a bedroom and talked about everything but baseball.
"I don't know why we didn't talk baseball," Felix Hernandez said before the Mariners lost 7-6 to the Angels yesterday. "He didn't start playing baseball until after I did. At 10 years old I played in some tournaments, and he came with me and he watched the games and then he said to me, 'I want to play baseball, too.'
"I was in the game for two years and I knew I wanted to be a big leaguer. I watched TV and I said I want to be like these guys. I wanted to be like Freddy or Pedro [Martinez]."
His father, a retired truck driver, encouraged him to chase his dream, and on July 4, 2002, Hernandez signed with the Mariners.
"It's a very solid family. A very close-knit family," Engle said. "You can tell by the way Felix has conducted himself that he has had good training and good direction. Prior to us arriving on the scene, the family had done their homework.
"Certainly, they had things on their mind as to where he would pitch, who would take care of him, and of course, money is always a part of it. They were sophisticated. And what we tried to convey to them, and I think what they were looking for, was not only was money a big part of this, but they asked, 'Do you have a plan for our son?' We tried to map out a plan."
Now 19, Hernandez, who is 1-1 with an 0.69 earned-run average, is way ahead of the plan. He will make his third big-league start tonight against Kansas City.
How good is Hernandez? Good enough to give up a Monday night to see the Mariners play the Royals, two teams that are a combined 58 games below .500.
Good enough to believe these first big-league starts could be the prelude to a glittering career.
"I look at him sometimes and I think to myself, when I was 19, I was in junior college and I could have never handled what he's handling right now with the kind of grace that he's handling it," said Mariners left fielder Raul Ibanez, whose locker is next to Hernandez's. "He's a rare talent and unbelievable to watch. And the way he is carrying himself in the locker room is very impressive.
"What's really surprising is, he's really humble for a kid with that amount of talent. He doesn't think that he's better than anyone else. He's very quiet, as a young player probably should be, and he just goes about his business with a very professional attitude."
Engle, who spent 24 years in the Toronto organization, sees similarities between Hernandez and All-Star pitchers Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay.
"When we scouts evaluate players, it's not only the physical ability, but it's the intangibles that come with the player," Engle said. "And not only physically, but makeup-wise, head and heart, you can draw some parallels to Carpenter and Halladay.
"There's a lot of pressure on Felix. And I think he can deal with it, but we all have to remember that he's 19 years old. It's great he's here. It's great he's getting all the attention. He deserves it. He's worked hard. He's come through the system quickly. But for a 19-year-old this is a lot to take in. I think getting here's one thing, but if you want to stay here and truly live up to your ability, you've got to work hard and continue to move forward."
A little more than five years ago, an excited Pedro Avila thought he saw something extraordinary in Felix Hernandez and convinced Engle to take a look.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company