At the east end of the bench, there are eleven small marks in the walnut wood. Annually, he has left a single mark for every year, a ritual he has celebrated since his arrival. He stands in the clubhouse, preparing to walk into the dugout, sweating from his pregame routine and ready to orchestrate the show that more than forty-thousand faithful have come to observe. He is a preacher headed to pulpit. He opens the door before him with his left hand, out of habit, or perhaps from pure religion. The towel wrapped around his right arm conceals what he holds in the hand. The rumble of the gathered increases in volume. He feels the electricity of a quintessential spring afternoon in Seattle.
Felix Hernandez saunters into the dugout for his first home start, a quarter in his right hand.
They all tip their caps, pat him on the back, and exchange wordless affirmation. He does not feel them. Not in this moment. He must reach the other end of the bench before they see the mist in his eyes. It is unbecoming of a king to show his weakness. It is proper for a king to rule unflinchingly and without remorse. So he has, and so he will.
He crouches, now at the far end of the dugout bench. With his hand he feels the eleven marks. Together, they comprise the only blemishes in the pristine grain. Together, they signify the wildest aspirations of a young boy, scared and alone in a new country, where it rains just a little too much. Together, those eleven marks represent eleven times that the countless faces who have shared this space with him fell short of their goal. He feels the eleventh mark. The cut in the wood still as fresh as the scars of the failed campaign. He remembers the pain of that year. He feels the tenth mark and its pain as well.
Felix Hernandez is bent over the dugout bench and scratching a twelfth mark in to the wood.
He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He kisses the mark five times. Once for his wife, his son, his daughter, for luck, and for all there in attendance, listening and watching. Between each kiss he lingers and gathers the weight resting on his knees, but also his heart. Now standing, he turns to face the field. This is the moment of his deepest stillness. This is the calm before the storm of aches and pains and nights without his family and winning and losing. He walks up the short stairs to the dugout rail, to the spot Nellie and Robbie have left between them. He sees emerald grass dotted with splashes of yellow from the towering lights set against a navy sky. The mound has been combed to his exact desires, the grass in front cut just the right length. The castle is kept just so. He closes his eyes one more time while a tear gathers.
Felix Hernandez wipes away a tear at the dugout rail, thinking of his mother and father.
His memory flashes back beyond those twelve marks. Back to a boy playing in the Venezuelan dirt with a head full of dreams. Back to a plane ride to a land he scarcely knew, one that would become his home. Back to the time before the tattoos and the magazine covers and the countless failures that drove him every single time he toed the rubber.
He is dragged back to the present by the abrupt slap of leather against his back. Robbie winks and pops his gum. He quickly recalls the twelfth mark in the wood. This mark will be different. This mark will be one he remembers as an old man. This mark will be one he tells stories of.
The crowd has calmed in anticipation. The time has once again arrived. For a long winter he and all have waited for this moment to return. There is no exercise that can prepare him for the emotion of the moment. The assembled are washed in the glow of the return of grace and beauty, their very being shrouded in senselessness. Nothing and everything is felt in this quiet, little moment. A thunderous voice beckons the nine players along the top step out to the field.
Felix Hernandez jogs onto the grass for the twelfth first time.
The crowd rises and roars but he does not hear them. Time slows in his mind and he can only think of one thing.
Don't touch the chalk.
Felix Hernandez skips over the first base line.