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The mountains of Cordillera de la Costa, a range near the coast of Venezuela, surround a fertile valley from which rises Valencia, the nation's third-largest city (pop. 1.9 million). Its economy runs on staples of commerce that would not distinguish Valencia from most any other midsized city: motor vehicles, textiles, cattle feed and a market for products of the surrounding agricultural region, such as sugarcane, cotton and cattle driven from the Orinoco prairies.
Very soon, though, Valencia will be known as the place that produced Felix Abraham Hernandez, the greatest pitching prodigy in more than 20 years. He caught the attention of the Mariners when he was 14 years old, breaking off whipsaw curveballs, firing upper-80s fastballs and radiating the cool, gunslinger mound presence of a man twice his age.
That's the astonishing thing about Hernandez, who made 12 mostly sublime starts for Seattle last year (4-4, 2.67 ERA) and turns a ripe 20 on April 8. The righthander seems to have arrived in the big leagues at this ridiculously young age fully formed, not just as a 6'3", 230-pound man but also as an ace blessed with every gift known to pitching and the instincts to know when to use them.
Hernandez does nothing to discredit the notion that he was born to this greatness. One afternoon, sitting on a picnic bench outside the Mariners' spring clubhouse in Peoria, Ariz., he is asked who most influenced his development as a pitcher.
"Nobody," he replies. "This is the way I have always pitched."
"Nobody," he says again. And then, tapping his pitching hand over his heart, he adds, "It's just inside me."
The history of 20-year-old full-time starting pitchers in the big leagues is riddled with blown arms and wrecked careers. In this information age, in which pitch counts have become as much a part of the vernacular as innings and strikeouts, Seattle is armed with more data than any previous team that faced such huge custodial responsibility. And still the Mariners have no way of ensuring Hernandez's health, what with labrums and rotator cuffs seemingly answering only to their own unscientific clocks.
"We're going to do everything we possibly can to protect Felix," general manager Bill Bavasi says. "He's got too much going for him. I'd never be able to live with myself if we did anything less than our absolute best. But even then the truth is, we just don't know for sure."
The hope diamond has been stolen once and been sold several times to pay off debts, but ever since it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, in 1958, the gem has left the premises only four times. The Mariners will need to send out Hernandez more frequently than that, though how he is handled won't be much different. "The way pitching is, when you get a kid this good, you want to take care of that talent," Mariners manager Mike Hargrove says. "Nobody wants to get Tommy John surgery when they're 25 years old. We're lucky to have Felix. At the same time, we have a tremendous responsibility."