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40 in 40: Félix Hernández

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Sometimes you win in baseball, but sometimes it hurts instead.

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

September 20th, 2017. The Mariners are 4 games out of the second wild card spot. The holder of that spot, the Minnesota Twins, have lost 5 of their last 6 games, practically begging another team to claim their postseason game. The Mariners have lost 5 in a row. Still, the tantalizing possibility of baseball in October darts through the September air.

Felix Hernandez is making his second start since returning from his second stint on the disabled list for bursitis. The Mariners still have a tiny chance in hell of eking their way into the playoffs. Sure, it’s unrealistic and a long shot, but it isn’t over until you’re mathematically eliminated, right?

Félix laughs on the mound at missed calls by the home plate umpire. He jokes around with Elvis Andrus after the first inning. He “encourages” Adrian Beltre throughout his second inning at bat, admonishing him to get into the batter’s box and to take it easy while running out a ground ball. The crowd is sparse at Safeco Field on this late season evening, but there are enough yellow shirts in the King’s Court for the camera to pan for a few seconds between pitches. Félix has a good curveball tonight. He’s on. He is light. 9 up and 9 down.

Félix starts this game in September 2017 when I foolishly still think there is a small chance in hell of watching Félix stand on the pitcher’s mound at Safeco Field in the postseason. Yes, it is unrealistic and a long shot, but passionate dreams die painful deaths.

He walks the first batter in the 4th inning. The next batter singles, but Mitch Haniger can’t make the play in right field. Then, Kyle Seager bobbles a ground ball and a run scores. Tie game. His demeanor becomes frustrated. This time, there is no joking when Beltré steps into the box. They barely look at each other, Félix monitoring the runners on base and Adrian checking the signs. Beltré doesn’t have any comment for the mound after an inside changeup. He doesn’t look toward his friend as he makes his way to first base after taking ball four.

Félix lost his stuff, his command, his focus. He walked off the mound and slowly back to the dugout, angry, defiant, and defeated.

And I felt something die because I knew that that was the last time.

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

***

He chose us. Repeatedly. He wanted us. When free agents turned up their noses at Seattle, when it felt like we were the laughingstock of baseball, he chose us.

We chose him back. He was ours and nobody else could have him. When he could not rack up win totals that set Cy Young voters salivating, we all turned into sabermetricians howling at the old guard baseball analysts. (It has often been commented on how Seattle has produced so many baseball writers. In the age of advanced statistics, it may be because that’s how we learned to defend our beloved Félix.) When people scoffed that he must not be that good, we could rattle off enough advanced stats to prove our case that naysayers would back slowly away.

Through the dark years, there was King Félix. He was the smile on our faces when we awoke on the morning of a Félix Hernández start. He was the glee with which we’d wish each other a Happy Félix Day! He was the joy of watching a pitcher toy with batters and the childlike delight of watching a player have fun. We’d live for camera shots of him joking around in the dugout and his camaraderie with teammates and opponents alike.

We hollered in triumph when he hit that grand slam. We felt the acute tension in every pitch he threw on his way to a perfect game that felt inevitable. We screamed with him when he roared, “This is my house!”

He was Félix. He was the light in the dark years, plucking us from the pits of despair. He would lead us to the land of milk and honey. He rose to claim us.

Our greatest dream was to see him standing on the mound at Safeco Field when the Mariners clinched their first World Series Championship. We all shared this vision of confetti and champagne and that first delicious championship. It was a craving for the erasure of the heartache during all the previous years of disappointment, all the unfulfilled promise of the few Mariners teams that were playoff contenders. One perfect moment that would make it all worth it.

***

It’s a strange phenomenon how fans are convinced we know the athletes we love. We think we have this deep connection with them. Even knowing better, it was hard to watch Félix pitch and not think it was true. As much as a city can collectively love a man about whom it only knows a little bit, we loved Félix. We still love him.

If there’s one truth I’m certain of it’s that all any of us really want is to be loved exactly the way we are. We criticize him because we care. We harp on his work ethic and his inability to fix himself because we want him to be like he was. But maybe, that’s just the way he is. Trying to change him would be as useless as trying to push back the marine layer. We either love him the way he is, or we don’t really love him at all.

I’ve worried about him the last few years. He has had those moments that transport us back in time, but he hasn’t truly been that version of himself. He hasn’t been as light or as free. I’ve wondered about his personal worries. Confronting the end of a career at age 33 that has defined you since you were a teenager is something few of us have experienced. The fame, the adulation, the easy fastballs and deceptive breaking pitches fading away, slipping. Losing the perception of love from the city you chose, the city you wanted.

Sometimes we forget to think about it, his being a person outside of the baseball pitcher that we think we know. We don’t know him. His struggles. His pain. His feelings about how his career has gone.

It hurts to watch. It’s gotta hurt worse to live.

***

Félix left the game on September 20th, 2017 with the bases loaded. Andrew Albers would come on in relief and yield a grand slam. It wasn’t a mathematical elimination, but everyone knew it was over. A passionate dream died that night on the battlefield of September baseball.

Last season, it felt like a thousand heartbreaks watching him try, but still struggle and be banished to the bullpen. The end was always going to hurt, but we have come to the end before we ever got to the dream.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were sustained by the dream, watching his perfect game and feeling the hope every time he took the mound. It felt like a movie. It felt like a song. The glory days of Félix are bound in a summer haze, all blue skies and warm summer evenings enveloping us as we soaked in this hopeful version of baseball that he gave us. Only yesterday was the time of our lives.

Even now, when it’s already over, I can’t help myself from dreaming of it.