Since Felix Hernandez made his MLB debut at just 19 years old, he has become one of the most fearsome competitors in the major leagues. "King Felix" is a six-time All-Star, three-time Cy Young finalist and fourth-best active pitcher in WAR (51.9) -- but when he came to the U.S. at 16, he didn't know how to order food outside of a buffet. Hernandez spoke with Marly Rivera about adjusting to the U.S., learning to pitch, and raising his children in a style that is so different from his own upbringing.
What have you missed playing baseball here and not in Venezuela?
It's very different. You miss your family. When I arrived here in the United States at 16 years old, it was the first time I was ever separated from my parents. Not knowing the language, not knowing the culture, it was quite difficult. I had the opportunity to play in 2003 in Venezuelan winter league, and I returned last year. I had not played there in a long time, and it's really different. The Venezuelan fan is very anxious, they want everything to be perfect, and one is human, one makes mistakes. Here people are calmer, more passive. I think that's the main difference.
What was the hardest thing when you got here at 16?
The hardest thing was to communicate. Also ordering food. I missed my family a lot. I called my mom every day. I would talk to her about everything, how it was around here, how we worked, it was really hard. But my mom just said to me, 'Son, you decided to be a baseball player.'
Did you ever regret coming to the U.S. because you missed your family too much?
Never. It never crossed my mind. Since I was a kid, I saw big leaguers playing on television and my mentality was always to be a big leaguer. That was my dream, to be like them. So it never crossed my mind. I tried to learn English as quickly as possible, and that helped me the most.
What did you do to improve your English?
I always listened to Americans having conversations. I always tried to listen and learn in the conversation. I also watched a lot of television without subtitles. An American player told me once you can't be shy; you can't feel embarrassed. If you say something wrong and someone corrects you, don't let it bother you, because that's what's best for you. That also helped me.
How long did it take you to communicate with coaches and teammates?
It was a process. Like people say, I butchered it [laughs]. But in about two years I began to let loose.
And you could already talk to the press?
It was difficult for me. I was shy. In my first year in the majors I had a translator. After that, I told them, "I want to say what I feel." They asked me if I felt comfortable, and I said yes, that I wanted to express myself and say what I feel during the game. The first time speaking in English after a game I got a little nervous. After that, I got used to having a lot of cameras around. As you start getting used to it, you can let loose and speak calmly.
You said it was difficult to order food before you learned English. How did you try?
We would stay at a hotel near our spring training complex [in Peoria], at the Hampton Inn. Now it's different because there's a Starbucks, but before there was a Jack in the Box, and I liked eating there. I learned to order the No. 7, and I kept eating that for a long time. It was a double cheeseburger that came with a coke and French fries. There were also many Venezuelans who had been there a long time already, so we helped each other out. Sometimes we would eat at a buffet, and we preferred it because we just had to get up and serve our own food and didn't have to talk to anyone.
Do you read, listen to music or prefer to watch movies in Spanish?
You have to balance it 50-50. I listen to Latin music and American music. I watch movies in English. I have grown very accustomed to life in the United States, although I like to travel to Venezuela.
Do you speak Spanish all the time at home?
When the kids are with my wife, they speak in Spanish. When they are with me, especially when we are playing, we sometimes speak in Spanish, sometimes in English, and Spanglish. If my son says something to his mom, he always says it in Spanish. We have a lot of variety. I thought that my youngest was not going to speak Spanish very well, but he really speaks it perfectly. When we go to Venezuela, my girl speaks only in Spanish, because she says, "Daddy, here they speak Spanish."
Because you were a top prospect, was your treatment in the minor leagues different from other Latinos?
The way they treat you is different. It's very, very different when you're the top prospect. They take care of you more. They help you with everything. They don't let you play winter ball. The way they treat prospects, it's really different.
What was the biggest shock for you when you went back to play baseball in Venezuela?
When I first pitched in Venezuela, I was not the same pitcher I am now. I was only 17 years old. The time I played there last year was very, very different. The fans are different. Fans are incredible. Some comments can't be repeated [laughs], but I enjoyed it to the max, especially when I played in Valencia, in my hometown. My whole family was there. I had to get a lot of tickets. The atmosphere of that game really was something spectacular.
What is the main difference between fans in Venezuela and Seattle?
The screams, the noise, the atmosphere, the rudeness of some of the things said out there. They yell at you: "strikeout, strikeout, strikeout." It's very different from American baseball. In Venezuela, baseball is also a source of joy for the country right now because of all that is happening. In a game of baseball, people can enjoy themselves and have fun. I think that's also why Venezuelan fans have such passion.
What was the first "luxury" you bought?
First, we fixed my old man's house, for the whole family. I also bought a car that we all used, a Ford Explorer. My dad was a truck driver, so I also helped him set up a truck business for people to work for him. I got a good bonus, so I also bought some earrings.
How do you handle what you have achieved and the economic position you are in now?
The most important thing is to have humility and appreciate what you have. It took a really big effort to get to where I am. I got here with a lot of sweat off my brow; no one has ever given me anything. I have earned it. We must also be very grateful for the family that taught you what humility is. That is what's most important.
How do you teach your children to appreciate things, when they have never lacked anything?
I am very passive with my children. If they say, "Daddy I want this," I give it to them. But my wife doesn't. My wife has taught them a lot. She's the one who helps them the most to value things. When we go to Venezuela she explains what is happening in the country, and that we live in the United States, but that things always have to be earned. She tells them that everything can't be "Daddy, give me this and that." Things have to be earned, and they have to be very grateful for everything.
Because of what's happening in Venezuela, do you have to be more careful when you travel?
Very much so. I walk around with a bodyguard. That's the only way I can go out. It really hurts me to see the country in that situation, people who have nothing to eat, or who eat only once a day. That hurts me a lot.
I worry because my whole family is in Venezuela. But I can't bring all of them all here. What can one do? I think one should not get involved [in politics]. We have to wait for a miracle to happen. It will take a long time for Venezuela to return to where it was, but we are still confident that things will improve.
How did you learn to manage your money?
[When I was younger] my mom and dad handled my money and sent it to me via Western Union. They would deposit money and I would take it out. [As an adult] my agents helped me out with that. I knew a financial advisor for a player who was here, Eddie Guardado. He introduced me. I talked to him and he gave me a lot of confidence, and he's still working with me. The most important thing for me now is to think about my children, their university, their future and that they can continue living well. That is why you have to have savings.
Do you think of yourself as someone who opened doors for other Venezuelan players?
In my position, yes. But long before me, many other players opened doors a long time ago. Those were our heroes. We watched them play baseball at this level as fans, and we dreamed of being like them. I watched Freddie Garcia and Pedro Martinez pitch a lot. I loved the way they pitched.
Who taught you how to pitch?
My brother, who was a pitching coach. He played two years in the minor leagues but did not make it to the big leagues. We played every day on the porch of the house. We shattered all my mom's glass windows [laughs]. We always listened to her scolding us, but we kept on playing. When I was little, I also really liked to hit. So I would pitch in a game and then would play shortstop in another game.
Was your talent obvious since childhood or did it develop over time?
You could see it from the beginning. But I was a slacker; really lazy. What I wanted to do all the time was go to the court to play basketball. When I was 13 or 14 years old, there were a lot of scouts who would come to see me, so they would take my ID so I couldn't go to the court to play basketball.
I still enjoy playing basketball, but not like before. I am a super fan of the NBA. I love it. My favorite players are Dwyane Wade and Michael Jordan. Jordan is an idol for all of us. The best basketball player in the world. Now it's LeBron.
Have you already told yourself "I made it"?
That moment has not come to me yet. I haven't told myself yet that I achieved my dream. It has not happened to me yet. Perhaps that moment will come when I retire. Maybe I will look back then and say, "Look at everything you did, all your numbers; you did achieve your dream."