People filled the concourse, everyone in shades of golden yellow, packed tightly together but moving with purpose. Cameron gripped his mom’s hand tightly, suddenly worried that he might get lost in this crowd and miss the game. He understood the excitement of the day. His mom had told him about the new number that would hang alongside the other four in centerfield, but mostly he was just excited to see another baseball game and to watch his favorite player, Kyle Lewis, in person. He was too young to have his own memories of Félix, but knew about him from the bedtime stories his mom told, about a man so great, so beloved, they called him King. Cameron didn’t have any nicknames; sometimes at recess his friends called him Cam, and dumb Julie called him Cammie, but maybe someday he’d be great enough to be called King, too.
Jason’s day had felt eternal. He had sat at work for hours, dreaming about his hero, as the clock taunted him with its torpidity. He remembered, as a kid, having tickets to a game and spending the entire day thinking about it, fidgeting in his seat in class. One day, perhaps, his kids would feel the same way. He adjusted the teal headphones on his two-year old daughter’s head as the noise level rose around them. She was excited by all the hubbub, but still seemed most compelled by the cotton candy her mother had allowed her. One day, perhaps, the love for sugar would build to fandom for their veteran closer with a similar name, but Jason knew that would have to be her choice. He glanced at his wife, who was tending to the cranky groans of their son with a fervent search for a pacifier. With relief, she unearthed it from its storage place, and the wails of their child gave way to the implacable buzz of 50,000 joyous attendees. Jason heard bits and pieces as he rocked from one foot to the other:
“...saw him when he first hit 100 mph...”
“...missed work for the perfect game...”
“...Game 6 against the Red Sox...”
“...used to twist just like him when I played...”
The stories all blended together, and every one rang true to him. As he swayed, Jason looked down at his daughter, whose joyful face was now covered in sweet, teal, cotton candy residue, which matched the headphones that dwarfed her head. Félix was not her hero. Her hero was likely the vendor who had walked by five minutes before with a tray full of sugary delights. That was just fine. Jason loved Félix and Jason loved her. His heart was as full as the sold-out stadium.
No one was sitting down in Section 121, so Emily stayed standing, too. She would have anyway, desperate as she was to take in as much of the day as possible. Most of her friends in Berkeley were Giants fans but, though they teased her about her Mariners fandom, even they understood the importance of this weekend pilgrimage. She was always quick to remind them about how her King had bested their almighty Bumgarner.
Most Mariners fans her age cited Griffey as the impetus for their baseball love, but she was a little late to the game. Félix was her guy. Had been, ever since her then-boyfriend spontaneously brought them to a game on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in August of 2012. The boy hadn’t stuck around, but Emily had bought a #34 jersey after the game and worn it faithfully for years. It had remained in good shape, though if you squinted you could still see the faint mascara stain along the collar from the wild 2017 season and that final game when Félix may not have been great, but was somehow exactly good enough. She fingered the hem of the well-worn fabric and craned her neck towards the bullpen, searching for some sign of the King.
He mindlessly rapped the rolled up program against his hand as Clarence gazed down at the seats he usually occupied. Club Level, down the third base line, where he had owned tickets to every home game for the last decade. They were a perk from his promotion, one he’d earned after a decade of late nights and compromises. Usually he gave them away to less busy family members or colleagues, and tonight he was sure his coworkers were enjoying themselves thoroughly. He’d considered staying there, in comfort, but he’d made a promise. If his team played hard and fair every game all season, and all 13 middle schoolers brought him signed report cards showing A’s and B’s across the board, they would earn tickets to see the King. Two months later here they sat, 300 level, behind home plate, and his knees, he knew, wouldn’t thank him in the morning.
Clarence smiled as he looked over the team, all of whom, he realized, had been barely old enough to hold a baseball in 2017, much less throw one. None of them remembered Randy Johnson, as he did, young and untamed. They saw Dan Wilson and Edgar and thought “Coach,” as he had with Lou when he first came to love baseball. Griffey, Lewis, and Suzuki were names the clever ones debated as they played catch warming up, bringing booming laughs from his gray-bristled cheeks. They did it as much to provoke him into joining their debates, Clarence mused, as they did it to find answers themselves, yet only one player would Clarence take a firm stand on. As he watched his team standing now, coated in the bright golden shirts they had received upon entry, frenzied with excitement as they watched the video board play highlight after highlight, he felt his heart swell. He did not recognize all the names on the program in his hand, but he knew #34. They both knew how it felt to toil for years in futility, to see your dreams feel as though they were slipping away to time and fate. They both refused. The music swelled and the PA Announcer asked for their attention. The middle schoolers gasped and the crowd swooned. Clarence smiled, and remembered.
It had been years since Franklin Gutierrez had set foot on the infield dirt of Safeco Field. The stadium had never been so packed when he’d been on the team, except maybe the day they’d retired Griffey’s number. He hadn’t been shocked when the Mariners had emailed him, requesting his presence as part of a surprise for this day, but now that it was here it all felt surreal. Everything was very much the same since he’d patrolled that outfield; same crunch of the dirt under his heels, same immaculately kept grass. Even the men standing shoulder-to-shoulder by his side were the same; flanked as he was by Jesús, shuffling his feet around, on the left and Nellie, shoulders as broad and stoic as ever, on the right. A dozen more players stood alongside them, stretching out along the first base line. Some had been his teammates, others were before or after his time, but they were all there to honor the King. Suddenly the already-raucous crowd roared louder and he, along with nearly 50,000 others, turned his eyes toward the bullpen in centerfield.
The roar of Safeco Field would never grow old. He had been cheered throughout the world, but this crowd was special. This crowd was his. This city was his.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome number 34, Félix Hernández
At this cue, he strides out onto the field, and begins his final journey to the mound. A sea of gold surrounds him, and the exhilaration he felt at the beginning of each home start thrums through him once more.
The crowd chants as one, slowly at first, but faster as he nears the center of the diamond.
K. K. K. K.
The banners fly high above the scene, in distant right field. They are the daily reminder of his journey, but today, every eye is on him.
K. K. K. K.
Faster now, the chants come. From the mound to the upper deck, from Seattle to Valencia, everyone knows:
K! K! K! K!
The K stands for King.