PEORIA, Ariz. (AP) — Whatever critics in his home country had to say about Felix Hernandez, it all seemed many miles away Friday when the star pitcher reported to Mariners spring training.
In the clubhouse and on the field, Hernandez didn't have to hear or see the reaction from fans in his native Venezuela who are unhappy that he has opted to skip the World Baseball Classic and stay with his team.
Hernandez was as happy-go-lucky as ever, sitting with clubhouse attendants early in the morning and smiling and gesturing with teammates and coaches before a small crowd of fans at the Mariners complex once the day's workout began.
Fresh off signing his seven-year, $175 million contract Wednesday that made him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball, Hernandez said it felt good to be back on the field with the team.
Teammates ribbed him with loan requests and about how he fought back tears after putting pen to paper at Safeco Field in front of a live national television audience.
"They're just playing around. Those guys are great," Hernandez said.
Hernandez said the reception to his new contract has been mixed in Venezuela. He was on Venezuela's provisional roster for the World Baseball Classic but last week decided not to play with contract negotiations in progress.
The announcement infuriated plenty of Venezuelans who feel that playing for the country is more important than the major-league club.
"Some guys say good things about me, some guys no," Hernandez said. "You know, it's a decision of my own and I just want to be here with my teammates and after this, they better understand."
Teammate Franklin Gutierrez, also from Venezuela, called Hernandez a huge source of pride for the country and a hard worker. "He deserves that contract because they love him in Seattle and he's a person that never gets tired of working hard and he's shown it through his pitching," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez defended his teammate's decision regarding the World Baseball Classic.
"It's a tough decision but he had to make it. He thought of his family's future," Gutierrez said. "I would have done the same thing. There will be another opportunity when he can represent Venezuela."
Pitching coach Carl Willis said Hernandez understands his place as the face of the organization and leader of the pitching staff at just 26 years old.
"He knows that he's an elite pitcher. But he doesn't take it for granted," Willis said. "I think that's part of the reason that he doesn't run away from it, because he understands what he is and what he can do and he doesn't let it change him as a person."
Hernandez won't throw a bullpen session until next week sometime. The Mariners will have him playing catch and doing drills in the meantime.
"We'll get him back on the mound and then we'll go from there," manager Eric Wedge said. "He knows the program. He knows his program, more importantly. You can trust him. He's going to be honest with you about how he feels and where he's at."
Hernandez has always been the jolly type and Friday was no different. He fielded ground balls back to the mound with flair and later smiled and pointed at a TV camera following him off the field.
Hernandez pledges to be the same guy, despite the giant contract. He spent the day after the signing relaxing with his family before flying to Arizona.
"It's coming from me, it's coming from my heart," Hernandez said about embracing his status as the face of the franchise. "The city of Seattle, all the fans over there, they've been great. What else can I say? I love that place."
Notes: Mariners position players reported to spring training Friday. The first full-team workout is Saturday. RHP Jhonny Nunez is expected to report as early as Saturday after dealing with international visa issues.