April 18th: Felix Hernandez leaves the game in the first inning with elbow tightness.
Boy will this be an unpopular pick. Perhaps I should phrase it better:
April 18th: Felix Hernandez takes himself out of the game in the first inning with elbow tightness.
This was, without doubt, the darkest day of the season. After all the unparalleled awesomeness the likes of which Felix bestowed upon his followers early on, his getting injured caused nothing short of widespread, staggering heartbreak. Mariner fans everywhere - fans who already had few reasons to tune in - suddenly found themselves having to deal with the tragic loss of the team's brightest bulb, and many of them began to question the rationale behind their devotion. I know I was having trouble. "Why do I subject myself to this?" I asked myself at least a few dozen times. "Felix is The Hope. And when the hope is gone, why bother?"
But from this disaster came something wonderful, something I've come to appreciate as the months have gone by. And that's the knowledge that, as stubborn as Felix can be and as reluctant as he usually is to come out of a game, he's smart enough to know when he's in trouble, and when he needs other people to come to his aid. That's something that a big part of me didn't see coming.
It reflects the kind of maturity and self-awareness that you don't ordinarily expect from a headstrong young phenom. A guy like Felix can get pretty far just blowing people away and doing whatever he wants, and while that kind of inborn ability makes for an incredible prospect, it can also lead to an attitude of presumed invulnerability. An attitude because of which a pitcher may believe that he's capable of plowing through any obstacle. Confidence is good - necessary, even - but on occasion it can lead you down a dangerous road, and in a situation like Felix's, we can only be glad that he called for the trainer rather than trying to man up and tough it out. God only knows what kind of damage that might have done.
I've seen what can happen when a pitcher doesn't listen to his body. Granted, I think the entire idea of "playing through pain" is antiquated and totally stupid, but I'll concede that sometimes it's the right decision. With pitchers, though, you always need to proceed with caution, because the slightest twinge can lead to considerable harm. If you're a first baseman and your back is sore, whatever, suit up if you're able. But if you're a pitcher, and you notice that there's something funny going on in your arm or your shoulder (or anywhere else, really), you have everything to lose by ignoring it, and nothing to gain.
This is a difficult message to get through the heads of young guys who, up until that point, have never encountered a roadblock. And that's why I'm so pleasantly surprised that Felix was smart enough to acknowledge the risk and take himself out before further damage could be done. Had he tried to remain in the game, even if only for a few more pitches, we might not be talking about him as a rotation candidate until September, if not 2009. That'd be a killer, both for Felix's career and for the Mariners' chances. I don't even know if I'd still be alive. Felix kinda sorta means a lot to me.
This wasn't a top moment like a Putz strikeout or Beltre home run was a top moment. In the short-term, this was actually the exact opposite. But looking back, I'm so utterly thankful that Felix made the right decision, and it speaks to something about Felix the person that makes me more encouraged about the future path of his promising career.
One might define intelligence as being aware of one's own shortcomings. Felix knows that he's mortal. Now the only thing left to do is to leave hitters doubting that statement's veracity.