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Safe As Houses

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Félix Holds the Door

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Seattle Mariners
this is my house there are many others like it but this one is mine
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” - Joan Didion

Therapists often begin a stretch of particularly difficult work by inviting the patient to imagine a safe space, a place they have felt happy, or comforted, or had their needs met. This technique presents a special challenge for poor children, who may only know unsafe spaces between failing schools, crime-infested neighborhoods, and houses lacking food or warmth (both figuratively and literally). It’s not surprising, then, that these children often name fictional or quasi-fictional spaces as their safe spaces: Bikini Bottom, Hogwarts, Disneyland. The other most common answer? A sports space: a football field, a basketball court, a baseball diamond.

Some teams—most notably, and callously, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim—don’t seem to care too much about who has a space at their games. Other teams do. When I taught in Philadelphia, the Phillies were awesome about helping poorer families access the field. They ran family days, reduced prices for classes, and sponsored literacy challenges in the schools where the kids could earn free tickets. The Broad Street Line travels from some of Philly’s poorest neighborhoods and will drop you off right in front of the stadium. One of my second-graders (who happens to share a name with LL’s own graphics wizard) raised his reading level so much he won a special year-end prize from the team, with on-field recognition during a game, tickets for his whole family, and a bag of Phillies swag. At school the next day, I asked him how he liked the experience. “I wish I could live there,” he said.

So many of us who are lucky enough to live nearby feel like Safeco is a second home. We know how to pack our bags to get through the entrance lines quicky (no full water bottles ever) and which gates have the shortest lines. We know when and where the cheap beer is; that if you stand near the bullpen during games you’ll get to see some wacky hijinks; that the dirty tots are the best and cheapest food option when shared among a group. We know which ushers are cool (love you, Barbara) and whom to avoid when sneaking across sections. After a long winter of closed-in air and not being properly dry in months, we count down the days until Fan Fest just for the thrill of breathing the air inside Safeco, that specific smell of garlic fries, polished concrete and freshly-mown grass.

Much has been made over the unpleasantness of the Blue Jays takeover at Safeco, and rightly so. These are outsiders who don’t know our fan culture, who take our treasured favorite spots for watching batting practice, who make us visitors in our own home. There’s an unpleasant connotation of colonization here, but a psychological lens to look through, as well: the loss of identity associated with losing one’s home. There is a strong body of scholarship on the deleterious effects of homelessness on the psyche. Deep down in our lizard brains we are still territorial creatures, and losing our home, our territory, is a gutpunch right in the limbic system, except now our limbic systems are attached to processing systems that can write mean tweets.

Look, if you doubt that sports can make this kind of a psychological wound, find a dyed-in-the-wool Seattleite of a certain age, look them deeply in the eyes, and say: “Seattle Supersonics.” Just be prepared to live with the consequences.

The pain of this series was heightened by the fact that these losses most likely took a sledgehammer to the glass case of emotion that was the Mariners’ playoff odds; as John Trupin remarked to me, we lost something important here, and we didn’t even have a safe space to mourn it. Hope springs eternal, but dropping the first two games of the series had real implications for the possibility of seeing the team extend their season at all. We didn’t just lose games; we most likely lost an opportunity to see the team we love play on. That hurts, and it hurts worse when you’re facing those feelings against a backdrop of a fanbase acting as loud and obnoxious as their namesake birds. Furthermore, having so few Mariners fans in attendance also costs one a sense of community—our fellow inmates, the lone thing we’ve had to rely on over our years of rooting for a team that has more often been frustrating than it has been transcendent.

These are the kinds of emotions where if you don’t honor them—if you cover them up with faux-outrage over the Mariners front office supposedly acting as courtesans to our neighbors from the north, or descend even further into the soft nihilism of same-old-Mariners—you don’t solve the pain, you just paper over it. But luckily, we have an avatar for healing, and his name is Félix Hernández:

There have been so many articles this year about Félix, most of them coming to the same conclusion: they miss the old Félix, the covered in gold Félix, thrower of no-nos Félix. Only in professional sports can a man like this, barely thirty, have his obituary written again and again. What often gets lost in this—aside from a brief nod to his loyalty, the rarity of that in sports today—is engaging on a deep level with the fact that Félix has been there for us, year in and year out; he has been in this building, where every blade of grass slants slightly in his direction. He has seen teammates and coaches and ownership come and go and he has stayed right here, our North Star. It’s not enough to talk about Félix as a tragic hero, the Boy Who Stayed; his DNA is woven into this place. The expression on Félix’s face there—the raw emotion and intensity and determination—gives me chills. His eyes are shooting thunderbolts. Look how his cheeks puff a little with the power of what he’s saying, that slight snarl before he repeats, for those in the back: MY. HOUSE. What Félix did on Wednesday was for him, and for his team, but it was also for his city, for us, his extended family who have been living in his house for the past ten years.

To revisit the opening quote of this piece: here is Félix claiming Safeco the hardest, wrenching it not just from the visiting fanbase but from its very self, from what we know of it as a palace of ineptitude and heartbreak and pulling up just short of expectations, and shaping it and giving it back to us, his subjects. This is him casting off the years of baggage and loving Safeco so radically that he remakes it in his own image. It is his, forever.