Fit for a King: Félix ready for 'amazing' Mariners HOF weekend

August 12th, 2023

SEATTLE -- The roars erupted in the bowels of T-Mobile Park on Friday much like they did a little more than 10 years ago when walked these halls.

Back then, he’d just signed a lucrative contract extension that would keep him in Seattle for his entire career, and he arrived at the offseason press conference to see nearly the entire Mariners’ front office and ballpark staff there to greet him when the elevator opened to the ballpark’s basement floor.

It was a gesture of “Thank you” to "The King" for his loyalty to the people in and around the organization off the field, an attribute that he’s recognized for as much as any player in franchise history. The chants and cheers echoed on Friday for all the same reasons, this time as he reached another press conference.

This time, it was to put a bow on a remarkable, 15-year career -- all spent in Seattle. 

“What they did over here in the hallway, it was amazing,” Hernández said. “What I have with the fans is something special and something I’m always going to remember.”

Hernández will be inducted into the Mariners’ Hall of Fame on Saturday as its 11th member, featuring a pregame ceremony roughly 40 minutes before first pitch against the AL-leading Orioles.

He’s already prepared a speech, which he said he wrote without the consultation of others, and that he’ll almost certainly bring the waterworks early and often throughout this celebratory weekend.

“It’s an honor,” Hernández said. “It’s a special thing getting in the Hall of Fame, especially here in Seattle -- a place that I love, a place that I call home. This weekend is going to be amazing. I can’t wait.”

This weekend comes nearly four years following his final start in a Mariners uniform on Sept. 26, 2019, one that saw him walk off the field practically sobbing while pointing towards the King’s Court beyond the third-base line after being relieved by manager Scott Servais with one out in the sixth inning.

He remained with the club through the weekend, but didn’t return until throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 of the American League Division Series last October.

At his peak, Hernández was among the best pitchers of his generation for a decade. From 2006-2015, Hernández led all MLB pitchers with 2,065 strikeouts, 2,178 innings pitched and 50.1 wins above replacement, per Fangraphs.

But his final years in Seattle were blemished by inconsistencies, a brief transition to the bullpen when the team was contending in 2018 and up-and-down performance in an injury-plagued '19, when the Mariners began their rebuild. At 33 years of age at the time, Hernández went 1-8 with a 6.40 ERA in 15 starts in his final year.

It was no secret that he and the front office didn’t always see eye to eye by the time of his exit, but after being invited back last October by Mariners chairman and managing general partner John Stanton, Hernández has moved past everything. It’s a huge component in what led to this weekend.

“It was amazing when I came here to throw the first pitch,” Hernández said. “I was a little nervous. I was like a part of the team, too. ... Coming back for the playoffs, we didn’t make it [while I was here], but I don’t have regrets about anything.”

Hernández spoke on Friday with the same charisma he exhibited throughout his 15-year career, drawing in his audience, making everyone in the room laugh and sharing hugs and fond memories. He even dropped in one of his favorite lines -- “pretty good” -- when offering some self assessment in reflection.

After leading in 2019, Hernández signed a Minor League contract with Atlanta ahead of Spring Training in 2020, then he opted out of the COVID-impacted season before it began. In 2021, he signed a Minors deal with Baltimore but didn’t make the team out of camp.

So, his entire baseball card features only the Mariners, with whom he finished his career as the club’s all-time leader in strikeouts (2,524), wins (169), starts (418) and innings pitches (2,729 2/3), while his ERA (3.42, rounded from 3.419) is second best.

“It looks way better like that,” Hernández said.

This weekend represents a huge opportunity for the 2023 club to look forward to a potential late-season push. But it also will be an iconic look back on one of the greats from the past.