The glances were subtle and only momentary. But if you watched closely, you could see Felix Hernandez steal quick looks at the American League Cy Young trophy displayed to his right as he answered questions during Thursday's pre-spring training media gathering at Safeco Field.
As he answered questions about the whirlwind ride the last few months have been since he earned baseball’s top pitching honor, Hernandez flashed a smile almost as bright as the diamond encrusted watch he was wearing.
“It’s been fun,” he said.
And yet, the reality that he had won the prize he worked so diligently toward took some time for him to grasp.
“For like two months, I was like, ‘Really? Cy Young?’ ” he said.
Judging by the stolen glances at the trophy with his name inscribed on it, he still wants to make sure it isn’t all some fantastic dream.
“It means a lot to me,” Hernandez said. “I worked hard for this.”
But he’s not even close to being satisfied.
“It’s not enough,” he said. “This year, I’m going to go out and do my best. I’m going to be the same guy, the same pitcher, and I’m going give my team a chance to win every game.”
That kind of comment made general manager Jack Zduriencik beam with pride.
“It’s part of what makes him who he is,” Zduriencik said. “I wasn’t here early (in his career), but I understand he’s grown and matured, which you see with a lot (of) young players – taking that responsibility and understanding who you are.”
Hernandez understands he is one of the five best pitchers in all of baseball. He understands he’s the unquestioned ace of the staff. He understands he has now become the face of the Mariners franchise.
“He’s striving for excellence, and that’s a wonderful thing,” Zduriencik said. “I think we are seeing him blossom into something pretty special.”
And most important of all – to the Mariners and their fans – he understands he can’t be content. He won’t allow himself to do that.
He’s going to continue to work and condition in the offseason, which helped him shed 30 pounds during his first two seasons.
“I’m going to do the same conditioning, the same workout,” he said. “I don’t have to change anything. I have to be the same pitcher.”
The Mariners would gladly take that from Hernandez. But even he will admit that he can improve.
“I can get better at a lot of things,” he said, pausing for several seconds to contemplate exactly what that might be.
Then, flashing a wide grin, he said: “I don’t know. That’s a good question.”
In sheer numbers, it’s hard to think of Hernandez being much better. Obviously, the 13-12 record he posted last season could improve. But winning requires run support, over which he has no control. The other numbers will be hard to top. He threw 2492/3 innings, posting a 2.27 ERA with six complete games. He had 232 strikeouts and walked just 70 batters.
Since winning the Cy Young award, Hernandez has enjoyed fame and adulation – more than he could have imagined.
The phone calls have been endless.
“My friends have called me, my teammates,” he said. “I think all my teammates called me. Even (Adrian) Beltre and (Jose) Vidro called me. Those guys are good friends.”
But in his baseball-mad homeland of Venezuela, Hernandez has become a mega-celebrity. He’s the second Venezuelan pitcher to win the award – Johan Santana won the AL Cy Young with Minnesota in 2004.
“Back in Venezuela, it was crazy,” he said. “I did a lot of interviews, a lot of stuff. It was hard to find time (to) work out, to go to the weight room, to play catch, but I figured it out.”
Now the only thing he has left to figure out is where he is going to display the trophy.
“I’m going to put it in my house in Seattle,” he said. “I will hang it in my room, or maybe my office.”
Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners