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Making a break with the past

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Saying goodbye to the King

MLB: Spring Training-Seattle Mariners at San Francisco Giants Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This year in Seattle, fall arrived with a vengeance. The first college football Saturday came in like a flipped switch, summery skies giving way to clouds, rain, and a howling wind seemingly overnight. It was a swift, brutal transition that forced shorts and tank tops back into storage in favor of jeans, long-sleeve tees and sweatshirts. This procrastinator appreciated the necessary haste of making the switch—no open boxes languishing on the floor waiting to bridge the weather; in go the memories of dinners al fresco against paintbox-exploding sunsets, the smell of saltwater and sunblock and the way sunlight sparkles on Puget Sound; a door closed decisively on summer. We’re told clean breaks are the easiest to heal.

Unlike fall’s swift descent on the city, the end of the Félix Hernández era in Seattle has not been a clean break, but rather a network of cracks, a splintering, a shattering. It has been long, and drawn-out, and painful. The royal imagery, lovingly embraced by player and fanbase and marketing department alike, has echoed hollowly over the past few seasons. Little by little, the markers by which Félix was known as King have dissipated. Over the past few years, he lost his ace status in baseball, his place as the most valuable Mariners starting pitcher, his Opening Day job, and, for a while, his place in the rotation. In the face of declining strikeouts, the staple of the King’s Court, the K cards, were gently re-engineered to read “Let’s Go Félix,” although most fans ignored that and continued to chant “K,” cheering on strikeouts that would never come.

Baseball is slow to change, but with a career as long as Félix’s, change will come. Félix’s career-high strikeout rate of 27.2%, in 2014, would be good enough for 19th in baseball this year, slotting him in between Lance Lynn and Jake Odorizzi. Gerrit Cole, who should win the Cy Young this year, has been worth 6.9 fWAR, close to the 6.7 Félix accumulated in his Cy Young year. The difference is Cole is doing it with a K% of about 40%, almost double Félix’s rate in 2010. Even in 2007, when Félix was throwing at a velocity similar to Cole, regularly sitting at 98 plus the deadly changeup, he only struck out 20% of batters who faced him. Félix often finished with some of the best raw strikeout numbers in baseball simply because he pitched so much, taking the ball every fifth day and routinely working deep into games. However, the best he ever finished in strikeout percentage was 6th, in 2014; in his other peak years he was mostly in the 15-20 range. Meanwhile, baseball changed to center the strikeout even more, a thing at which Félix was very, very good but not elite, especially as the odometer turned on his right arm and his velocity continued to fall.

Although Félix’s velocity declined steadily, there are two main periods where he lost the most ticks on his fastball: directly after the 2007 season, where his 98-99 mph fastball dropped to sitting 96 regularly in 2008; and after 2015, when, after a brief upturn in 2014, the fastball fell to a career-low 91.21 mph on average. While Félix was able to navigate his first drop in velocity without much damage to his overall numbers, the second would prove to be a killing blow. His strikeout rate cratered and his 3.82 ERA hid an ugly 4.63 FIP. His numbers in Seattle would never recover.

A clean break often has a clear cause: an icy patch, a cheating spouse, a finality of fissure. Stress fractures, chronic pain, long and messy breakups are harder to pinpoint. There’s plenty of blame to be shared around. Blame the ineptitude of the Mariners to augment their star with a core group that could score him runs, the utter failure to develop talent on the farm or retain or maximize talent that later went on to star elsewhere (see Beltré, Adrián; Jones, Adam; etc.). Blame the revolving door of pitching coaches Félix saw (eight). Blame Félix himself for being a difficult student, for reportedly neglecting off-season conditioning. Blame the Mariners marketing department for leaning heavily on K chants for a pitcher who was never a top-tier strikeout pitcher by rate, but rather one who could come in every fifth day without fail and shut the opposition down for as long as was necessary. Blame even the mythos attached to larger-than-life sports figures, the sense of invulnerability that inevitably precipitates their downfall. Mariners fans needed a savior, and Félix put that weight on his shoulders and tried to bear it alone. It was a doomed mission from the start, but it still hurt to watch him fail.

At the Mariners Town Hall last week, an aggrieved fan wanted to know what the plan was for Félix. Will the Mariners just throw him on the trash heap, like all he did for the team, for the city, didn’t matter? Dipoto answered with some degree of Dipoto-speak about all Félix has meant to the franchise, etc., and then about halfway through his answer seemed to cast all that aside. “I can’t go back in history,” he said, looking directly at the fan. “I don’t know what to do to make that feel differently in your heart.” It was the closest I’ve ever heard Jerry Dipoto publicly admit to the truth we all know: that no matter what else had happened then or since, the Mariners under Bill Bavasi and Jack Zduriencik squandered the best years of Félix’s career. It’s a truth admitted to, obliquely, by Bavasi himself:

“As far as I’m concerned, with a player like Félix, if there are red flags, they’re on the club,” Bavasi said. “My experience is he did everything we asked and he didn’t do anything we asked him not to. If you see a shortcoming, it was ours, not his.”

Of course, it’s easy for Bavasi, from a safe distance, to admit fault; he’s not the one holding the bag. That’s Jerry Dipoto, who is the one standing in front of a fan accusing him of throwing Félix in the dump, touching his own heart as if to acknowledge the pain that’s lodged there. It’s Dipoto’s administration that has had to deal with the fallout of the exiled King, a mess that was not of their own making, but also not improved during their tenure. It’s unfair on both sides: for fans, a pain that has been on their hearts for years, and for Dipoto and Co., an unpleasant tie to a past regime that has made it difficult to shed the mantle of failure that has hung around the club for decades. Most of all, it’s not fair for Félix, who has given so much of himself, who single-handedly provided a light in the darkness for all those lost seasons. It’s sad, and unfair, and it lodges a pain in the heart that cannot be removed. There will be no fairy-tale ending for King Félix in Seattle.

Loss is always painful to some degree, and Mariners fans have, over an excruciating period of time, lost Félix in the most painful way imaginable, seeing him robbed by time and wear, his talent alone no longer enough to sustain him at the top of the game. As sad as it will be to see Félix toe the rubber one last time in a Mariners uniform, it will also be the beginning of something new; a chance to walk respectfully away from the past and cautiously enter the future, one final, clean break with the past. The heart-ache over Félix will, for generations of Mariners fans, never truly be healed, but at least now scar tissue can begin to form.

Fairy tales aren’t real. This is a story without a happy ending, But maybe tonight a little of the old Félix magic will come back, enough that when combined with the voices of his loyal court, it will carry him through the gates and out of the kingdom one last time with the grace he deserves. And barring that, there will still be the love. The love, at least, is beyond question, beyond time and talent, beyond any story we can think to tell.