Sports

No worries after signing Felix

Now that Felix Hernandez has decided $78 million is a fair payoff for delaying his turn at a real jackpot - now that it appears the 23-year-old ace who had the potential to be the most coveted free-agent pitcher in history after the 2011 season, is under the team's control through 2014 - I must admit something.

It feels strange, this notion of not fretting about the Seattle Mariners’ plans as they pertain to Felix’s plans.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the deal. Securing Hernandez for the long haul was the foremost offseason priority of general manager Jack Zduriencik, whose second-most urgent task was to acquire a No. 2 pitcher for a rotation loaded with depth on the back end but needy of more punch at the top. Zduriencik traded for Cliff Lee before the holidays, then quietly oversaw the negotiations required to keep Hernandez in place.

If it weren’t for the fact 2010 isn’t yet three weeks old and, as the broadcasters like to say, there’s a lot of baseball to be played, Zduriencik would be a shoo-in for executive of the year.

Still, the assurance of Fernandez remaining in the fold for five more years poses an odd kind of emptiness: There’s nothing noteworthy for us to worry about.

A true fan of any baseball team worries to some degree. Red Sox fans worry what the Yankees are up to, and vice versa. White Sox fans worry about Cubs fans. Cubs fans worry about the end of the world – not so much about some horrific disappearance of the sun, but the possibility the world will end precisely as the Cubs are leading Game 7 of the World Series with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning.

When it comes to worrying, though, few baseball observers have had more practice – or devoted more time to the task – than Mariners fans.

The chance Jeff Smulyan might sell the failing franchise to out-of-towners aroused worries in 1991. When Nintendo intervened, thanks to a CEO who lives in Tokyo, there were worries Major League Baseball wouldn’t deal with an overseas ownership group.

After those hurdles were cleared, worries shifted toward the product on the field. In the early 1990s, All-Star center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. occasionally went public about his frustration with the feeble supporting cast. That was a worry.

Just as the Mariners finally found themselves contending in a pennant race, late in the summer of 1995, we worried if the magically timed comeback would generate enough momentum to get the wrecking ball rolling on the Kingdome, so it could be replaced by the outdoor ballpark ownership demanded.

Sure enough, a bill was passed and a stadium was built, eradicating about a decade’s worth of old worries while creating some new ones: Would the Mariners’ sluggers, who appreciated the Kingdome in ways the rest of us never could, find happiness in a yard where 450-foot blasts sometimes turned into warning-track outs?

What about the fate of superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez, approaching free agency in 2001? Or Griffey, who yearned to play for a team closer to his family in Florida? Or the inimitable Randy Johnson, who might have spread as many back pains as he suffered?

Worries. Worries all.

Then the M’s signed a 16-year-old phenom pitcher from Valencia, Venezuela, on July 4, 2002.

Aside from a handful international scouts, nobody knew about Felix Hernandez in 2002. It wasn’t until the following year, when he reported to Everett and overpowered hitters in the short-season Single-A Northwest League, that he opened eyes in the Seattle area.

By 2004, Hernandez was his organization’s minor league pitcher of the year. By 2005, he was starting in the major leagues – and the clock toward his eligibility for free agency was ticking. There were some growing pains with pitch selection and maintaining composure when the going got tough, but even during the worst of times, it was easy to see why the kid was destined to be special.

This past season, in the middle of May, the reality of Hernandez’s sheer talent achieved harmonic convergence with his limitless potential. What ensued was both fascinating and infuriating.

Whenever Felix pitched well – and he pitched well in virtually every start – we were reminded that he had the luxury of taking the Mariners to arbitration for the next two seasons, after which he had the ultimate luxury of declaring himself a free agent.

This begat a debate: Should Seattle trade Hernandez with two seasons remaining on his contract, maximizing the pitcher’s market value? Or should the team stay the course and ride the horse?

Amid the discourse, the prevailing emotion was angst. Here was a dilemma, it seemed, with no happy solution. Felix was gone, in either scenario.

And though I suspected Zduriencik could convince Hernandez of still another option – staying with the Mariners another four or five years, then cashing in on free-agency well before he’s 30 – I typically cringed as pundits insisted he’d be foolish to engage in contract-extension talks with the Mariners while he’s only a couple of seasons away from signing a stupid-money contract with, say, the Yankees.

All those fears, it turns out, were unwarranted. Felix Hernandez will pitch in a Seattle uniform for the next five years, and how wonderful is that?

And yet, I’m worried. I’m worried about an injury, and complacency, and the various temptations presented a 23-year-old pro athlete guaranteed $78 million.

Most of all, I’m worried for a Mariners organization that has abandoned its roots and left us, very suddenly, with nothing worthy of worry.

Felix vs. The Hall

How Felix Hernandez’s first five seasons stack up against those of the past five starting pitchers voted into the Hall of Fame:

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Hernandez58418102871.2173.45

Nolan Ryan48538184981.3003.07

Don Sutton66739583371.1903.45

x-Phil Niekro75668032951.1172.86

Steve Carlton74599054231.2703.11

Tom Seaver955411553521.0462.34

whip-Walks plus hits divided by innings pitched x-Niekro’s statistics cover his first five seasons as a starting pitcher

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