Friday, September 18, 2009

Game 148: It's Good To Be King

It was the modern day version of the story where some scout was driving through the backroads in his pickup truck and found a kid somewhere out in the sticks who could throw rocks through the side of a barn. It used to be that parts of the United States were rural and isolated enough that there might be a diamond in the rough just sitting out there waiting to be discovered. Today, those searches have turned towards third world nations such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela where the passion for baseball has spread throughout the countryside.

The kids play for the love of the game of course, but there is also the potential that if they reach the highest levels of the game, they can rescue their families from real, extreme poverty, a reality that most kids growing up in the States just don't face.

Felix Hernandez was only 14 years old and already throwing in the low to mid 90's when he caught the eye of scout of a scout named Luis Fuenmayor outside of Maracaibo, Venezuela. He couldn't sign with any team until he was 16 years old, but important steps had to be taken in order for teams to put themselves in position to sign him; relationships to be formed, trust to be gained.

The Yankees were in hot pursuit of the young flamethrower and so were the Braves, Astros, Dodgers, Rockies and Hernandez's eventual choice, the Mariners. The Yankees extended the first offer to Hernandez and the Braves the largest. But he chose the $710,000 option from the Mariners and the rest, as they say, is history.

The USS Mariner anointed him "King Felix" in 2003 when he was just 17 years old, pitching in short season A-ball. He continued to eat up the minors, striking out 172 in 149 1/3 innings as an 18 year old between high A and AA and 100 in 88 innings the following year at AAA. He was called up in August that year, and in his second start ever in the Big Leagues, he threw 8 shutout innings using only 94 pitches against the Twins as the Mariners took the game 1-0. He was still only 19.

The reign of King Felix has continued to grow over the years. In his first full season as a starter, he had a a roughly league average ERA but it has declined every year since. Along the way, he offered up a resplendent performance at Fenway Park in early April, with a complete game, one hit shutout of the Red Sox on Wednesday Night Baseball replete with 17 ground ball outs. Last year, he hit an eyes-closed grand slam off fellow Venezuelan Johan Santana. This season, behind only Zack Greinke, he has the second best argument for the AL Cy Young award when you remove the performance of his team behind him.

Some have speculated that he might get a $200 million dollar contract when he reaches free agency after the 2011 season, at which point he'll be 25 years old; extremely young for a starting pitcher to hit the open market.

Hernandez has faced the Yankees once each year since 2005 and his performances have been anything but royal. He's given up 16 runs and 15 walks in 24 1/3 innings in the four outings. He hasn't faced them since May of last year, when he gave up 12 hits and six runs over 5 2/3 IP.

Much has changed since then, namely the Yankees line up but King Felix has also stepped up his game considerably. His ERA has dropped a full run, he's is striking out more batters while walking fewer, and giving up fewer hits per nine innings.

One thing hasn't changed though. It's still good to be King Felix.

[Ed Note: Since we've got a ways to go before the game at 10:10PM EST, we've included an extra long live version of the song which Petty & Co. apparently have chosen as the one tune they work an extended jam into. The first couple of links about third world scouting and King Felix are worth the read if you're looking to kill time as well. The USS Mariner (also linked above) is a great place to go for info on the boys from Seattle. Enjoy.]

It's good to be king, if just for a while,
To be there in velvet, yeah, to give em a smile,
It's good to get high, and never come down,
It's good to be king of your own little town.

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