Felix Hernandez Lasts

I have always struggled to write about Felix. I am a mediocre writer, and a mediocre man. Often the words I am happiest with are the ones I write without thinking or feeling. But Felix and my connection to this baseball team, and in many ways this region, are tied together too deeply. It is a knot my brain cannot untangle. With Felix, the music stops. There are, to quote the King of Prussia, too many notes.

That said, here on the cusp of what may actually be his last start as a Mariner before he suffers the indignity of whatever fate time, thousands of innings, and Jerry Dipoto have in store for him, is my honest attempt to express what Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariner, means to me.

*****

To grow up is to learn disillusionment, and in that way professional sports are an excellent teacher. The various games, leagues, mythos, romance, ideologies, and on in place were invented, refined, and sold to us for one purpose, and it was to profit the men who owned them. They sell themselves expertly, particularly to the young and naive, and once we learn to love something as children, it is incredibly difficult to rationalize away from it.

There comes a point, though, when we realize the empty falseness, the Wizard of Oz-like con game that can seem to be at the heart of so much of all this stuff we spend all this time loving and caring about. It’s usually a player leaving in free agency, or traded to another team once his useful (i.e. cheap) years with the team have run out. We don’t stop loving sports, because we have always done it, and to stop feels like we would stop being ourselves, but we learn the inequity of the transaction of feeling as a sports fan. Professional sports are, and will always be, a foolish and potentially emotionally damaging thing to care about.

*****

All hail King Felix. Hernandez worked five innings last night against Spokane, allowing just one run on two hits and striking out five. He also walked four, but it’s important to remember that he’s only 17 and facing much older competition, including some college players. I’m trying not to get too excited about him, but it’s difficult not to with the way he’s pitched so far.

The summer of 2003 was marked by the beginnings of the first split between the Mariners organization, and the newly burgeoning segment of its fans on the internet. On the field the team was in its final season of glory, a 93-win powerhouse, its fourth straight 90+ win season. Off the field, Lou Piniella’s recent war with the front office was fresh, Pat Gillick’s use of the the farm as nothing more than a resource to trade from to supplement the current run had bled it dry, and, to a few fans, the happy days were numbered.

There was disagreement, and there was infighting. There was name calling, and personal attacks, and resentment. In the tiny overlap in the venn diagram between the warring parties, there was Felix. He was 17 years old, and obliterating the Northwest League. USS Mariner, the mother tree of online Mariner fandom, called him King. Two years later he would be in Seattle, throwing eight shutout innings against the Twins.

As Felix ascended the Mariners spiraled into oblivion, like an untethered astronaut. They flailed, they screamed, they tried to change. Nothing worked. There was no friction. There was nothing. Only Felix.

*****

I was twenty-one when Felix was crowned King. I am thirty-six today. In between I have gotten married, had children, gotten fat, gotten skinny, gotten fat again, bought a house, nearly died, made and lost friends, and grown gray hairs. I’ve been to the Royal Court, seen Felix throw an immaculate inning, win a Cy Young, throw a Perfect Game, re-sign with the Mariners, and re-sign with them again and cry about it. I have never seen him pitch in the playoffs, and am now pretty close to convinced I never will.

Lasts are important. They serve as touchstones that spiral us backwards through our shared experiences, remembering that the feelings in our gut weren’t plopped there, but forged and nurtured, through time and affection. Lasts call back all that has come before, and with Felix, my god so much has come before today. The last Opening Day start already happened, the last shutout and complete game probably have too.

Now, today, with the Mariners desperately clinging to their playoff hopes, and Felix’s arm simply incapable of doing what it has done here for pushing two decades, we may be at the last start. The Blue Jays are the opponent, and it feels fitting. Maybe my favorite Felix memory is against Toronto, as is the game upon which it can be argued his career began its decline. That Safeco Field will be filled with non-Mariner fans feels similarly appropriate. Felix has always seemingly delighted in ripping out the soul of a hostile crowd.

****

“King” Felix has always been such a perfect nickname. At his height Felix not only reigned over games and seasons, but the talent gap between him and the rest of his typically terrible Mariner teammates was sufficient to set him apart. Like a noble of old. he stood atop the only raised part of the field and looks down like a monarch upon his kingdom. We rose and stood when he exited the bullpen and headed towards the mound. We chanted his name. I’ve grown into an adult with him, and he with us. Here, in the very lasts of his career, we recognize and acknowledge his legacy here is not contingent upon yesterday, today, or tomorrow. It is secure. It will last. So, tonight, we stand and rise, and we say, as we always have, and always will:

Long live the King.

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