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40 in 40: Felix Hernandez

The hero we never deserved

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Felix Hernandez made his major league debut for the Mariners on August 4, 2005. He was 19 years old, and at the time was the youngest MLB pitcher in over 20 years. Felix gave up one earned run over 5.0 innings pitched, and earned the loss as the Mariners fell 3-1 to the Tigers. The Mariners put up three hits that game. Willie Bloomquist started at second base, and hit second. Scott Spezio played DH. Mike Morse started at shortstop. Yes, really. Mike Morse. Shortstop. The Mariners finished 2005 at 69-93.

Who would have thought that Felix’s very first start could potentially become career-defining? Back then, the Mariners were only four years removed from a playoff appearance and two years removed from a 90-win season. Ichiro was in his prime. Felix looked phenomenal. The future was bright.

The years went by, and the future didn’t look any less bright. On April 11, 2007, Daisuke Matsuzaka made his home debut at Fenway Park against Felix. Daisuke and his gyroball were considered to be the next big thing, and he was in the prime of his career at age 27. Felix was 21, and threw a one-hitter, spoiling Daisuke’s debut and shocking the Red Sox.

The Mariners would go on to choke in the final months and drop out of the playoff race after manager Mike Hargrove suddenly resigned in the midst of a seven-game winning streak.

On June 17, 2008, Felix became the 13th American League pitcher in history to throw an immaculate inning, as he fanned three Florida Marlins using just nine pitches. He was 22 years old.

Six days later, Felix had his only at-bat of 2008 against the New York Mets. He did this.

It was in 2009 that Felix became a true ace. It was also in 2009 that the truly perverse nature of Felix’s relationship with the Mariners became apparent. Felix went 19-5, and narrowly lost the Cy Young Award to Zack Greinke. My lasting memory of that year, however, was bittersweet. I couldn’t find any photos or videos, but the date was July 9, 2009.

Felix threw 8.0 innings of three-hit baseball. He’d thrown 112 pitches and had given up one run. Going into the bottom of the 8th inning, the Mariners were losing 1-0. Felix didn’t watch any of the bottom of the eighth. I have a vivid memory of him sitting in the dugout with a towel over his head.

Apparently, he’d said: “Guys, let me know what happens; I don’t want to see this. I can’t lose this game 1-0 again.” Four years into his career, the 1-0 loss was already a meme.

Franklin Gutierrez hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the inning and the Mariners won 3-1. Felix jumped up and was screaming with more emotion than I’ve ever seen out of a human being in my life. Other than the aftermath of The Double, I can’t remember seeing a Mariner give so much of a shit. The Mariners did not make the playoffs that year.

The next year, Eric Byrnes bicycled out of the clubhouse, Cliff Lee was traded three months into the year, and Ken Griffey Jr. fell asleep in the clubhouse. The Mariners became the first team in history to lose 100 games with a payroll of at least $95 million, and Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award.

On August 15, 2012, Felix Hernandez faced the Tampa Bay Rays in a season already long-lost. The Mariners’ lineup featured Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, Trayvon Robinson, and Eric Thames. I personally cannot imagine a less inspiring situation. Felix did this.

In the seven years since, the Mariners have had two winning seasons. In 2014, they came one game away from making the playoffs. Other than that, it hasn’t been close. Felix Hernandez has 51 games in which he’s pitched at least 5.0 innings, given up one run or fewer, and didn’t get the win. His career record is 160-114. If he’d spent his career on a decent team and wasn’t just now running into health issues, the man would have a legitimate shot at 300 wins.

And it’s for this reason that I have a really hard time putting the onus on Felix to carry the Mariners this season, which is exactly what Jerry Dipoto is doing. Jerry’s not wrong. If Felix stays healthy, the Mariners have a significant chance. If Felix doesn’t stay healthy, the Mariners have a marginal-at-best chance. Felix’s wasted career isn’t Jerry’s problem. Besides, I get it. The dude makes $20 million per season. It’s hard to have sympathy for the emotional toil of someone making that much money.

But think of the last 13 years of Mariners baseball. There have been four winning seasons. Can you imagine how unbearable it would have been without Felix? What if Felix had ruptured a tendon in 2004 and hadn’t ever made it to the Majors? Would the Mariners have lost 105 games at some point? 110?

More importantly, how many good memories of the past decade would we have? I’ll go out on a limb and say: not many.

If Felix struggles, the Mariners will probably struggle. I still won’t blame Felix. He’s the reason I’ve stayed up until 11 PM to watch 100-loss teams. He’s the baseball player that has showed more emotion than any Mariner I can remember. He’s the man that has made the Mariners worth watching. He’s the King.

He’s still ours, and you still can’t have him.