King Felix not changed by big contract

Felix Hernandez still wears his cap bill slightly tilted to one

side.

He still performs the sign of the cross as he prepares to pitch.

And that fastball that helped make him the Seattle Mariners’ ace is

still electric.

Not much has changed for King Felix – that is, other than the

five-year, $78 million contract paycheck he signed last month and

the two pounds he gained before arriving for spring training

Wednesday.

“More muscle,” Hernandez deadpanned.

The 23-year-old Hernandez is also becoming more of a leader,

evident even on the first day of workouts for pitchers and catchers

Thursday at the Mariners’ spring training complex. He’s popular

with his teammates, pops his catcher’s mitt with pitches that draw

a crowd of onlookers and is just fine with taking some ribbing from

his manager.

The team measured and listed players’ body-fat content in

physicals Wednesday, and Hernandez said his was at 13 percent.

“Felix says he won it,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “You look

at that list. It’s his all-time low, but he still at the top of

(the list).”

That said, the svelte Hernandez seems a more trim 225 pounds,

his listed weight. And there’s no arguing with his 19-5 record last

season.

“I just told him that it’s maturity,” Wakamatsu cracked.

“He’s getting older and the baby fat’s going away, it wasn’t how

hard you worked.”

But Hernandez is growing into his role. He dismisses any notion

that the money and pressure that comes with it will affect him.

“Not really,” Hernandez said. “It’s the same. I just have to

do the same work I did last year. I don’t feel any

difference.”

His coaches, however, will be keeping an eye on that.

“I saw such growth last year, and he’s just continuing that,

obviously,” Wakamatsu said. “What we have to watch for is this

guy signed an awfully big contract and how he’s going to handle

that in the right way. And so far, we’re just trying to explain to

him that he needs to be the same guy. And that’s difficult for

professional athletes sometimes because they want to put a lot of

responsibility on themselves, but he doesn’t need to.”

Hernandez threw off a mound Thursday, the first time he’s done

so since the Mariners’ regular-season finale. He was winded after

sprints on the field following his bullpen session.

“I feel like I haven’t thrown for two years,” he said, “Oh,

but it’s getting better. Not big expectations from the first

bullpen.”

But Hernandez will be back to being the same person who loudly

cheers his teammates from the dugout and who shouts and pumps his

arms after a big strikeout, his pitching coach says.

“You’ll see a guy that over a period of time, the leadership

abilities will come out even more,” Rick Adair said. “There’s a

lot in Felix. You see the passion. You see the personality, the

intensity. That’s not false bravado. It’s real because his work

ethic and preparation is getting better and there’s passion within

that.”