Tom Hanks’ character in The League of Their Own once yelled, “There’s no crying in baseball,” but any fan of the game knows that is simply not true. It wasn’t true when Mariano Rivera walked off the mound one last time. It wasn’t true when Prince Fielder told the world that, after two neck operations, he had to step away from the game for good.
And it certainly wasn’t true when Félix Hernández emphatically slammed the ball into Manager Scott Servais’ hand one final time, as he smiled, winced with emotion, and fought back tears, while the crowd chanted his name.
I will never forget sitting on my bed, hunched over my laptop in the dark, more than 5,000 miles from Seattle. It was the middle of the night in León, Spain, but Félix Hernandez was nine outs from perfection and I was determined to witness history. With each out, I simultaneously cheered in silence and grew ever more anxious, until finally, I threw my arms up in celebration.
Surely, another team would eventually lure Félix away with big money, just as they had done with nearly every other former Mariners’ star or promising young prospect. As fans, we’d been taught that’s just how the world works. But in that moment, I wasn’t worried about losing the best pitcher in baseball to free agency. That moment was perfect.
The following winter the Mariners re-signed Félix to a 7-year, $175 million contract. “Félix is ours and you can’t have him,” headlines boisterously read. Yes, winning the Cy Young Award was incredible, and his perfect game was, well, perfect, but his commitment to this city, to this team, and to us as fans meant more than any statistic.
From 2009-2015, Félix was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. Yet, during that stretch he never won more than 19 games in a single season and the Mariners went a combined 522-612 (largely due to a lack of run support). In Félix’s 15 seasons with the ballclub, the Mariners never made the playoffs—the closest they ever came was when they finished one game out of the second AL Wild Card spot in 2014.
The fact that Félix never got to pitch in October breaks my heart. All we ever wanted was one game, one chance, for Félix to show the world what he can do and why he belongs with the best to ever play the game.
I think that’s all Félix ever wanted too. Each spring he must’ve truly believed that this could be “our year,” just like we did. He too must’ve believed that whichever free agent we had signed that year would solve our offensive woes, and that our bats would magically come alive. Why else stay?
He could have gotten paid anywhere else, and he could have pitched in October literally anywhere else (the only other team that did not make a postseason appearance during Félix’s career is the Miami Marlins), but he didn’t. He stayed and that meant a lot to us.
Félix’s best years immediately followed the departure of the Seattle SuperSonics, thus, his unwavering loyalty to a fanbase, so desperate for a glimmer of hope, was endearing.
Over the past few days, I’ve read plenty of articles and tweets that compared athletes, past and present. I’ve seen fans search for unattainable answers as to who is the most “beloved,” “important,” “best” or “[insert adjective here]” athlete in the history of Seattle sports.
Sports are inherently quantitative in the form of wins, losses, and individual statistics, but what makes them so beautiful and so captivating is their subjectivity. Stats are interesting and useful, but it’s the irrational emotion, underdog mentality that keeps us coming back. For example, when Félix came running out of the dugout in a bright yellow King’s Court t-shirt, raw emotion incited the Mariners’ crowd into a standing ovation following an otherwise meaningless 3-1 Thursday night loss. Therefore, I’m not here to argue whether Félix was “better” than someone else—he was great in his own way.
Félix was like the big brother who looked out for us on the playground. Whenever the Mariners were one of the worst teams in baseball (which happened more often than we would have liked), he didn’t let anyone push us around. And when his curveball would seemingly fall off a table, causing batters to foolishly swing at nothing but particles of air, Félix didn’t smile or show an ounce of remorse. Instead he pounded his chest, pointed at the dirt, and screamed, “This is my house!,” as the batter walked solemnly back to the dugout.
Félix loved Seattle, with all of his heart. And Seattle loved him back.
Seattle embraced a 19 year-old kid from Venezuela and watched him grow up to become the man of the house. So yes Félix, you’re right. No matter how many times they change the name of the stadium or the color of the lights outside, this place, this summertime sanctuary just south of downtown Seattle, where magic happens 81 nights every year, is yours. And it always will be, no matter who’s on the mound.
SafeCo Field was the “House that Griffey Built,” there is no denying that. However, over the next two decades, it became the Kingdom that Félix ruled.
Thank you for everything, Félix. Long live The King.