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Let’s Talk About Félix Hernández and Grief

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I only teared up a little while writing this post.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

There were a lot of reasons that 2019 was a lousy year. One reason is that the Mariners weren’t good. They’ve spent a great deal of time hovering around .500 for approximately forever now, but 2019 was the first time the Mariners won fewer than 70 games since 2011. After about two decades of mediocrity and missing the playoffs, most Mariners fans probably didn’t even bat an eye, but there did seem to be a shroud of discomfort present in the air from the outset of the year, and that was the elephant in the room: 2019 marked the first time that Félix Hernández hadn’t been the Mariners’ Opening Day starter since 2008. It was a bleak start to his final year with the Mariners.

The nature of Félix’s contract meant that how we handled him was different than how we handled, say, Wade Miley. It’s easy to move on from a middling journeyman, but I’m not convinced we’ll ever move on from Félix.

For a long time, I had visceral, positive feelings towards Félix — feelings that slowly changed over the latter half of the 2010s, morphing into something closer to apathy. He started to struggle to stay on the field after 2015, and when he was on the field, he looked like a shell of his former self most of the time. There was always hope, but more of a lingering sense of doubt than we ever wanted to admit.

As humans, we’re designed to hold onto the bad, while sometimes (oftentimes!) letting the good times elude us. While this pessimism helps keep us alive, it also makes it easy for us to forget that a prevailing conversation of the early 2010s was, “Who’s the best pitcher in baseball, Félix or Clayton Kershaw?” It’s easy to forget Félix outdueling Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2007. It’s easy to forget that Félix pitched 10 straight years with 190 innings pitched or more. It’s easy to forget his six All-Star games. It’s easy to forget his Cy Young year. It’s easy to forget his perfect game. Hell, it’s probably easiest to forget what is perhaps his most overlooked accolade of all — he hit a goddamn grand slam off of Johan Santana. But most of all, amidst the turbulent last several years, it became easy to forget how much Félix adored Seattle.

Consider this quote from Félix’s 2013 contract extension press conference:

“To the people in Seattle that trust me and believe in me, I’ll say this: I’m not going to disappoint anybody,” an emotional Hernández said. “I’m going to do my best. This Seattle Mariners team is going to be on top. Believe me.”

No block quote can capture the feelings that this press conference evoked. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s still worth a watch. I remember watching it and feeling such a deep sense of appreciation for Félix and not being able to fully grasp the concept that he was going to be with us throughout the prime of his career. In Seattle, we’re not accustomed to the sustainment of good things. We lost Ken Griffey Jr. to kick off the millennium. We lost Randy Johnson a few years before that. And then there was Alex Rodriguez, whose departure is perhaps the most infamous in Seattle sports history. Put simply, most all of the superstars who have called Seattle home have skipped out of town for money, or what they perceive as greener pastures. In either case, it’s hard to reason that they’re ultimately objectionable, but there’s something about Félix’s loyalty to Seattle that’ll make you feel pressure in your tear ducts.

During the press conference, Félix talks about how he wasn’t going to disappoint anybody, and in my mind, he didn’t. There will always be wet blankets who talk about how he didn’t live up to his contract, to which I retort: he lived up to it before it was signed. To me, the only party who disappointed here was the Mariners. They had a lot of time to surround Félix with talent, and they instead chose to renege on this unspoken agreement. During his time as the king of the hill, he put up with a whole lot of Jose Lopez, Justin Smoak, and wayyyyyyyyy too much Yuniesky Betancourt than is good for one’s well-being. Félix made true on his promise and did his best. He tried so hard that he swallowed his pride and (finally!) threw more curveballs than sinkers in 2019 to make up for his annually declining fastball velocity.

Félix has been part of my life since I was in fourth grade. Back then, I didn’t know that for the next 15 years I would have to endure a lot of bad baseball. During that span, one of the only things that made the Mariners even remotely watchable was Félix. There was Ichiro, and then there was Robinson Canó, and there was even Kyle Seager, but mostly, there was Félix. There have been a lot of things that have made me question my Mariners fandom. Especially in the past half decade or so. But there was never a moment that I didn’t love watching Félix pumping his fist coming off the mound, waltzing around the dugout wielding a baseball bat, or jawing at Adrián Beltré from across the diamond. And now that I’m a grown adult, I sometimes think about my fourth grade self. I don’t think he would have ever imagined he’d be writing for Lookout Landing, and I doubt it was even fathomable that Félix would ever look mortal. One thing that I do know for certain is that, without Félix, my Mariners fandom looks a lot different than it does now. Maybe it doesn’t even exist.

It’s going to be weird tonight. It won’t be the first time that we’ve seen someone else toss out the first pitch for the Mariners. After all, Marco Gonzales did it just last year, and Erik Bedard did it that one time instead of Félix. But it will be the first time that Félix won’t be present in the dugout since 2005, and that’s going to suck.

I suppose I’ve buried the hell out of my lede here, but I wanted to save it as a parting note. As a counselor-in-training, I’ve been learning a lot about grief lately. One of the main things I’ve learned is that grief doesn’t always have to involve death. You can grieve the loss of a relationship, or you can grieve that you’re moving out of your hometown. Grief is defined by the griever! So, for me, I hope it’s not too cheesy to say that I’ll be grieving Félix Hernández tonight. Part of this grief for me is that, for all of these years, I took him for granted, and I never realized it. And for that, I have a lot of regret.

What is given to you will inevitably change; love it anyway. For Félix, he’s changed quite a bit over the years — we both have! — but there will probably never be another athlete that I adore more than I did him. Maybe that’s one of the things that comes with no longer being a teenager. (Now I’m bored and old!) The thing to remember is that Félix adored us right back. People who are forgetful may besmirch his name, because they don’t remember the good times. But for 15 years, he was King Félix, and his rule was nothing short of supreme.