“We are all vulnerable and we will all, at some point in our lives, fall.”
I love this quote, from the pilot episode of the incomparable Friday Night Lights, because it isn’t followed up by any trite affirmations about getting back up after the fall, simply that these times and this pain “allow us to look inside ourselves.”
Last night may have been Félix Hernández’s last start in a Mariners uniform, ever.
There’s a very good chance it will be his last start this season.
Not sure how many Felix Hernandez starts I’ve covered since coming to Seattle at the end of 2006. He talked to us after every outing, including the one that may knock him from the rotation. Never seen him this broken. pic.twitter.com/9fgcYEmLDq— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) August 8, 2018
His eye contact is almost nonexistent, he keeps his head ducked low, his voice is soft and his words are slow. This is a man who hasn’t just fallen, but plummeted. He has looked within, and nothing but his own failings peered back at him.
Baseball is a team sport, but to be a starting pitcher is to be isolated from that team; to bear an additional weight. The day that a pitcher starts they move silently throughout the locker room - it’s the number one rule of the clubhouse: do not speak with the starter - and between innings the camera will often pan to them sitting at the end of the dugout bench, given a wide berth by teammates. Even out on the field, surrounded by eight of their compatriots, they stand alone on the mound.
Félix’s journey has appeared particularly isolated. Less than a year after the Mariners signed him as a 16-year-old in Valencia, Venezuela he arrived in Everett, where he threw 55 innings and struck out 73. He rocketed through the minors: Everett and Wisconsin in 2003, Inland Empire and San Antonio in 2004, and finally Tacoma and Seattle in 2005. Since that time he’s been managed by eight different men (none of whom were native Spanish speakers like he), and coached by six different pitching coaches. Someone with greater patience than I could calculate the number of teammates he has had but suffice it to say, there’ve been a lot. So perhaps Félix’s isolation evolved as a coping mechanism, a way to protect himself from the turmoil of an organization he had no control over? Could it have been the byproduct of success? The melancholy result of devoting your life to being the very best. Or maybe isolation is simply always what he preferred.
Last night he came out for the sixth inning, a decision that made many fans furious, but it wasn’t The King out there. It was a shadow of the man we used to rise for. His shoulders slumped between pitches, he had a glazed look of resignation in his eyes, and not even Cameron Maybin’s great catch at the wall could restore our King.
The end of Félix’s career deserves a sweeping story, something fraught with the emotions of nearly two decades of belief and futility. I’m certain someone will write something stunning about loyalty, and passion, and the brutality of time. The best I can muster is the melancholy nostalgia that comes when you finally reach an end that you’ve been anticipating for a while.
Over the past few years we’ve crafted a seemingly endless number of redemption narratives. There have been flashes of hope, enough to crawl through Fangraphs, or to grasp at pedagogical texts to create salvation in one last redemptive arc, but now he really may be through. He deserves a grand farewell, but all those years of scrounging have made me hollow, and warped my belief in his mortality. To write well you must believe in the truth of your own words, and we’ve written his triumphant return so many times that he has grown immortal in my mind, rising from the ash time and again.
Even now I can’t bring myself to believe this is truly the end of his career as a starter, but I do think think this is the end of my belief in him; what was once belief and loyalty has long since become foolishness. I hope in the future we can look back on this piece and scoff, but most of all I hope Félix can find peace.