He is the one who stayed.
That’s it. That’s the whole article, really. Félix chose to be a Mariner, at least twice by signing contracts, and then presumably continually chose to be here over the years since he was never traded.
For a stretch of at least 7 years during his nearly 15 years with the Mariners organization, Félix Hernández was one of the very best pitchers in baseball. The other years surrounding that 7 were his ascent and then his decline. 15 years. How does that seem like both an eternity and like it was over in heartbeat? When I was a kid, pitchers having 15 to 20 year careers seemed fairly common. I had plenty of late 80’s baseball cards that told me so. “Hey, wow this balding dude with a pot-belly has been pitching since ‘71? Huh, how ‘bout that.” With the increase in pitcher arm injuries due to increased velocity/effort and just the sheer impossibility of a human arm still working correctly after thousands of repetitions of the same traumatic motion, there aren’t many pitchers that make it past 10 seasons, let alone 15 with the same damn team.
The Seattle Mariners. Félix is ours and you can’t have him. It was the motto, the retort we hung our hats on. He chose us. We could only ever return the favor by standing and cheering. Save for a few special occasions, it never felt like it was enough.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how Félix’s career spans the awkward teenage years of following sports online through its misspent 20’s and early adulthood, and into its older, wiser, but still unrefined early 30’s. From the early days of baseball blogs, to baseball Twitter, and all the changes and advances in baseball analytics in the last 15 years, it’s a testament to how much more quickly things change in the internet age because of such increasingly easy and rapid access to information. Lest we forget, the story goes that Dave Cameron wrote this post in 2007 on USS Mariner addressed to then-Mariners pitching coach Rafael Chaves in the hopes that he would show it to Félix. He did, and Félix began mixing his pitches better in the first inning. Mariners bloggers and blog-readers didn’t just love Félix because he was an exciting pitcher. This was an internet-era intertwining of fates and identities. This felt like a legitimate connection. The well-meaning nerds at home noticed something, reached out in hopes of helping someone they cared about, and the person listened and got better. This is a truly remarkable part of Félix’s story that I hope doesn’t get forgotten or buried by the latter parts of his career.
Now, if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like to tell a story that probably only feels magical to me, but here it goes. An hour or so before the game started on August 15, 2012, I received an email saying the engagement ring I’d ordered would be ready for pick-up later that day. Great, I thought, I’ll walk downtown from Harborview and pick it up on my way home. Several hours later, after literally bouncing from cubicle to cubicle haranguing co-workers at my soul-crushing UW Medicine IT Services job because Félix Hernández had just thrown a perfect game, I literally skipped downtown to pick up the ring. What better omen could there be than my favorite baseball player on my favorite team throwing a perfect game on the day I pick up an engagement ring?
A week later, I proposed at Safeco (not on the big screen, eww, I’m not a monster), and seven years later we’re still together and have a 2-year-old daughter. I can hardly put into words how much Cassie and our kiddo mean to me and how fortunate I feel. And it just so happens that these events truly went into motion the same day Félix threw his perfect game. The connection is personal.
This has been my phone background ever since I laid eyes on the photo. I’ve gone through at least 3 or 4 phones since then, but I’ve always kept it. The feeling never changes.
Being in decline sucks. In baseball, some players are just done over the course of a few months. Other declines, like Félix’s, are more subtle and slow, much like normal human aging. A slow, but steady piling up of the fallout from all your choices and your body’s exertions. It builds up slowly enough that you don’t notice it until you’re drowning in it.
It’s rare that we get to choose our endings. Not knowing Félix or anyone in the Mariners organization personally, all I can do is speculate about what could have been done the last 3 or 4 seasons to have made Félix’s final years in Seattle more enjoyable and less bitter and frustrating. When the 2018 team needed him to be just a shade of his former world-beating self in order to stay in the Wild Card race, he repeatedly did not rise to the occasion.
And so, this is the ending we’re stuck with and that Félix is stuck with. It could certainly be worse. At the very least he’ll have a chance to go out on his feet. He’ll stroll out of the bullpen one more time to the tune of Aloe Blacc’s “The Man” while the expansive Final King’s Court roars its approval and appreciation one more time. What happens in the game on Thursday is of little consequence to me. What matters is the fact that he will be there, like he has always been there. He chose to be there, for us. To try and make us proud. To make good on the faith the team put in him when he was a teenager.
Endings aren’t all sunshine and lollipops, but they’re real and they’re all we have left.
So, on behalf of all the writers who have come and gone on Lookout Landing and on behalf of the current staff, I want to say thank you, Félix. You gave us a reason to watch and cheer during many lean years. You gave us your all. You stayed, for us.
From the first King’s Court in 2011 to the final one tonight, we’re with you. Always.