September 17 - My Own Personal Felix Day

This is a piece I wrote last Friday, fresh off the adrenaline burn of watching Felix almost no-hit the Rangers. Suffice it to say, it was basically a religious moment for me. This is basically a love letter to Felix, but believe it or not, I restrained myself a great deal while writing it. I wanted it to demonstrate some sort of perspective, rather than simply dwelling in the fantastic. I also wrote this for the layperson, I guess, so forgive me for stating the obvious at certain points. 

I went to the ballpark today for the first time in months. My Seattle Mariners are atrocious, and the only reason I attended was to see Felix Hernandez pitch. Felix is our golden boy; only twenty-four, he’s one of the best pitchers in the league. He is a large Venezuelan guy, and he wears his hat tilted slightly to the side. His body language is loose and cool – a manifestation of how easy the game is to him. He slouches inexplicably, and drags his feet when he walks. But he is prone to outbursts of vitality: when he crosses the baseline every inning, he leaps over it jauntily, happy to cast off another obstacle. When he strikes someone out in a critical moment, he bellows and pumps his fist. This isn’t hubris; it’s elation – the sign of a competitor, not a showboat.

I first saw Felix Hernandez pitch when he was eighteen, for the minor-league San Antonio Missions. It was dollar beer, pizza, hot dog, and soda night. I lucked out; in addition to the extraordinary specials, I got to watch the Man Who Would Be King. I knew about him already: he was the best prospect in our system, and he was already being called “King Felix” based on his potential. The pitcher I saw that day was pudgy and nonchalant, and his shirt had trouble staying tucked into his waistline. He was a six year-old Mozart, tapping on keys in pursuit of his symphony. He blew batters away, and the few mistakes were signs of youth more than weakness. When the catcher threw the ball back to him, he popped his bubble gum, and caught the ball with a haphazard swipe. He already knew he was the anointed one, and that unsettled me. Privilege breeds complacence, and I was worried he’d coast on his talent.

I no longer worry about such trifles. Felix has grown into the baddest pitcher in the American League. He is a front-runner for the Cy Young Award. He has trudged onward most admirably, through a particularly horrendous season of Mariners baseball. He leads the league in innings pitched, strikeouts, and ERA. He flattens Yankees and Red Sox by the dozens, and on their turf, no less. He is a bright spot on a largely depressing team.

So I went to the ballpark, for the first time in months. I’m a fair-weather fan, mostly for self-preservation. I don’t think it necessary to beat myself up when the Mariners suck. Instead, I stop paying attention. There’s no reason to let such a thing affect me.

When a team is as bad as these Mariners are, certain individuals gain significance. Felix Hernandez’s performance this year is a glaring glitch in the cosmic plan for Mariner misery. It’s too bad that the team is so terrible, but at this point, I don’t care. We have a champion pitcher, and when he is pitching, I feel marvelous. So what if we’re approaching 100 losses. We get to watch Felix Hernandez pitch every fifth day. As far as I’m concerned, we’re the luckiest fans around.

Today, I braved the rain to go sit in the bleachers, and to watch Felix pitch. From the cheapest seats in the house, I had a perfect perspective as Felix bore down on the helpless visiting Rangers. He turned batter after batter away from the box. Only a few hitters hit the ball squarely. I saw two or three feeble choppers tapped right back to Felix. He pounced on these dying grounders, and whipped them to first base with the same velocity of one of his pitches. I’m used to this – in addition to being a dominant hurler, Felix is one of the best fielding pitchers in the league. His instincts are tremendous. Early on in the game, a speedster named Julio Borbon laid down a good bunt. Felix sprang from the mound, jumped on the ball, and fired it to first base to beat Borbon easily.

After walking the very first man he faced, Felix retired twenty-one straight batters. After that initial walk, not one Ranger reached first base, from the first to the seventh inning. Felix strutted around like he owned the mound. Every batter’s presence was an insult. How dare they think they can challenge me?! He worked so quickly that if you took a bathroom break, you missed it. If I had to go, I made sure to go when the Rangers were on the field. 

My friends and I sat idly as the Mariners batted. We rooted openly against our own team in anticipation of Felix’s return to the mound. We were bored by his absence; the promise of more Felix made us listless while we waited. And when he returned, we stood up and felt glorious. I sat rapt, entranced by the zip on his fastball. Before I knew it, Felix was wandering back to the dugout, with the stride of an aimless prodigy, as we whooped and shouted his name.

By the midpoint of the game, we all realized that Felix hadn’t allowed a hit. Only one of us had ever seen a no-hitter: my friend Brian, who had been in attendance for Chris Bosio’s no-hitter in 1994 in the Kingdome. By the seventh inning, we couldn’t sit down; we stood in our row with unsuppressed glee. It seemed to us that Felix was on the verge of his masterpiece. This was his symphony, playing before us in the form of 95 mile-per-hour fastballs on the edge of the plate, and the most futile pop flies you can imagine. I felt the joy of anticipation, a feeling sweeter than success itself. What possibilities lay in this game pitched by Felix! This could be the crown of my baseball spectatorship: my favorite Mariner, summiting against the hated Texas Rangers.

Then – on the second pitch of the eighth inning, a Ranger parked a ball into the center field beer garden. Our hope deflated. We leaned on each other for support, exhausted by what Felix had put us through. In the 6th and 7th innings, I had been a mess. My hands spent most of their time covering my face. It was rare and lovely: it’s not every day that a Seattle sports fan gets a thrill like Felix gave me. I shouted, and jumped up and down, and hugged my friends on either side. Felix was dominant; he was exhibiting the singular gift, which only the finest pitchers possess, of affecting the game in a blasphemous way. He was god today, on September 18th. The slump in the hitters’ shoulders, and the crestfallen angle of their batting helmets as they returned to the dugout, represented a reluctant praise of his dominance. We were all orbiting around Felix – not least his opponents.

It was a relief, then, when Nelson Cruz broke the spell with a long home run to center field. It was the bitterest relief, but relief nonetheless. Perfection remained elusive for Felix Hernandez. And for us fans, this can only be a good thing. That cocky, extraordinary teenager has grown into a glorious pitcher, the best who currently stalks the globe. As long as he isn’t quite perfect, he will strive for perfection. The most wonderful part is that last night wasn’t the best he has to offer. Until he throws that no-hitter, we get the privilege of anticipating it.

There is a bigger picture: Felix’s work will never be complete until a championship banner hangs at Safeco Field. This is why we love you, Felix: because you offer a taste of the Promised Land. Your teammates are lost, for now, but you are already a champion. Days like today, when your genius invades us, are what make you great. But a banner will make you my hero.

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