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About Last Night: searching for a new identity

At some point we all have a crisis of purpose

Seattle Mariners Photo Day
Then-#66, in 2005
Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld /Getty Images

When I was 16 years old I got my license, and battled AP Biology; when Félix Hernández was 16 he was throwing 90 MPH, and earned a $710,000 signing bonus. At 19 I joined a sorority and boldly declared my English major; Félix joined the Mariners, and struck out 77 hitters in 84.1 innings. I’m now 23, preparing to build some IKEA furniture and stifling panic about making plans three months from now; Félix made his All-Star game debut, threw a two-hit, complete game shutout, and came in second in Cy Young Award voting.

We know how good Félix was, that needn’t be repeated, but what isn’t quite emphasized enough is how young he was when he accomplished these feats. While the rest of us bumbled (or continue to bumble) our way through our teens and 20s, Félix was breaking records and securing his place in Seattle sports history. He’s 32 now, just three years older than James Paxton but with nearly triple the major league service time, and has weathered a staggering number of leadership changes. Most of us can only dream of being as successful as Félix Hernández - multiple awards and peer recognition, overwhelming dominance for years at a time, and the often singlehanded efforts to bring national relevance to his work. He was once great, but now finds himself as just one of many, his struggles painfully magnified by his own former superiority.

Félix might never have been a Mariner. The Yankees and the Braves famously offered him more money to sign with them, but Seattle scouts had devoted extensive time to developing relationships with the Hernández family and this trust encouraged Félix to sign with the Mariners. It’s a theme of his career, in all its permutations: loyalty. But how long can one sustain on loyalty alone? It was easy to love him at his peak, to remind greedy Yankees fans that he was ours and you could not have him. Even as 2015 tipped into 2016, and 2016 into 2017, there was talk of a return, dreams of triumph and successful reinvention. For so long Hernández was the lone bright spot in Mariners baseball but this season, as the team has powered into contention as a unit, the King has been lost to the background. More of an anchor than a propeller.

Writers seek clear narratives: The rise of the King, the fall of the King, the return of the King. Félix has not abided by any linearity - he was great, greater than we could have imagined, and then he declined, but teased us with flashes of old brilliance and a new craftiness. We’ve seen this writ large on the 2018 season as he imploded in San Francisco, returned to competency two starts later against Oakland, and then dazzled us against Tampa...and struggled against them immediately afterwards. Last night’s start represented all those ups and downs on a micro level, with four dominant, scoreless innings, a stumble with a solo home run, and a sixth inning that saw him fall utterly fall apart yet somehow gather himself up again to finish out the inning.

The narrative doesn’t really matter, but for Félix’s sake, and for the sake of this team, he needs to reclaim some semblance of consistency. It’s a small sample, but his last three starts are trending in the right direction - no overwhelming dominance, but a craftiness that can sustain him, and this team. He’s had better command of his changeup and curve, and has increased their usage accordingly, and, as Goose pointed out, his fraught sinker is helping him generate ground balls at a season-high rate. This isn’t the first time we’ve felt a glimmer of hope about a “new” Félix, but it’s a sustained trend in the right direction.

Hopefully in a few weeks this piece won’t appear foolish. We’ve written, and analyzed, and cheered, and hoped beyond hope, but ultimately the successful reinvention of Félix lies with Félix himself. As AA San Antonio Missions manager Dave Brundage said, back in 2004, “He’s going to be Félix Hernandez, and he’s going to be as good as he wants to be.”