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.
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.
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
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
he replies. "This is the way I have always pitched."
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.
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."