On a night when it was supposed to be about him, Felix Hernandez, of course, made it about them.
Why? Because that’s who he has always been since he first put on a Mariners uniform. And it was going to stay that way until the final pitch of his final start Thursday night at T-Mobile Park.
The 3-1 defeat against the A’s will be forgotten within days. The overwhelming memories elicited by Hernandez in his 15 seasons with the Mariners and the heartfelt goodbye will remain.
“It means a lot,” he said. “This is the first team I got the opportunity to play baseball for and chase my dream to play in the big leagues. I’ve been here since 2005 and I loved every part of it.”
For as much as his overwhelming natural talent and a right arm touched by the baseball gods carried him to elite heights in this game, he never forgot to take the fans of Seattle on that ride, knowing they pushed him higher than he could have imagined. They had always been in this together from his days as a chubby phenom through an unbelievable run of excellence and even in a painful and regrettable decline. Theirs was an imperfect relationship that grew through the victories and brilliant performances while sustaining through the frustration and so very many defeats and wasted opportunities.
This game was about them all – Hernandez and the 20,921 fans in attendance, the others watching on television and anyone who wore his No. 34 jersey or even once chanted his name.
“I love this kind of game,” he said. “I love the fans. I love their support. I love my teammates. It was a fun game all the way around.”
He was going to make sure they all knew just how much each and every fan meant to him.
“The relationship with the fans,” he said. “It’s always been nice. They’re nice people. That’s why I called this home and why I called Safeco Field my house. There was a lot of emotion.”
From the time he emerged from the Mariners’ bullpen, with Aloe Blacc’s “The Man” blaring and everyone in attendance cheering, to when he left the field with one out in the sixth inning when the raw emotion of sadness and the realization this was the end left him in tears and after the game when he went to the King’s Court to thank them one last time, Hernandez never forgot to acknowledge those who came to see him one last time.
For a generation of fans that endured the Mariners putting a subpar product on the field, Hernandez gave them hope every fifth day. “Happy Felix Day!” might have been a tag line used by the Mariners, blogs and social media, but it was the reality. When he was right, and he was on the mound, well, the Mariners were a better team than in the other four games in between.
On a night where emotions ran high, the catharsis came after Hernandez got Robbie Grossman to line out to center. With Hernandez’s pitch count at 106, manager Scott Servais walked onto the field to tell Hernandez he was done.
Goodbye was here.
Hernandez handed him the ball. Servais held the ball in Hernandez’s hands. Theirs was a complicated and at times strained relationship, but on this night none of it mattered. The two men hugged.
“I said, ‘It’s time,'” Servais said. “I said, ‘I’m proud of you and how you’ve handled everything.’ I said, ‘You’ll always be the King in this town.’ And he will. There will never be another like Felix here.”
Hernandez then turned to Kyle Seager, his longest remaining teammate on the team. They held an extended embrace. Once a wide-eyed rookie intimidated by Hernandez’s talent and presence, Seager was the only player who saw Hernandez at his best. And now he wouldn’t see him anymore.
“I’ve had the pleasure of playing behind him for quite a few games,” Seager said. “It’s hard to think of something more special than that. I’ve been thinking about this for a little while. It’s hard to put things into words.”
After hugging the rest of the infielders, the inevitable walk to the dugout remained. He raised his hands to thank the crowd. It was all too much for him. Tears flowed. Goodbye hurt.
“It was hard not to cry,” he said.
But he wasn’t done with them. After hugging everyone possible in the dugout, and at the crowd’s manic urging, he exploded from the dugout for a curtain call. Both hands up, he waved to everyone and then gave a prolonged point to the King’s Court, then tapping his heart.
The results were familiar – 5 1/3 innings, three runs allowed on five hits with four walks and three strikeouts. His legacy wasn’t defined by this final game or its results. It was as much about celebration as a competition. Though Hernandez, of course, expected to do better.
When it came time to take the field, Hernandez jogged to the mound, skipping over the first-base line like always. But his teammates didn’t join him. Did he leave too soon? No. The moment was his and they wanted him to have it. So Hernandez climbed the mound and looked around, seeing he was alone in front of the fans who came to see him one last time.
He removed his cap once again and waved to an already standing and cheering crowd. He breathed deep and looked around at the place he had called home for some many seasons, tears filling the corners of his eyes. Somehow he had to throw his warm-up pitches.
He survived a 30-pitch first inning that included three walks and two hits. To be fair, he was riding a wave of emotions and feelings that aren’t typical for an outing.
He gave up a two-out, two-run homer in the second inning to Matt Chapman only because first-base umpire Chad Fairchild botched an obvious check-swing call for a third strike on the batter before.
Hernandez retired seven consecutive batters before loading the bases with two outs in the fifth. Servais came to the mound to talk to Hernandez.
A line drive off the bat of Chad Pinder seemed destined for a three-run double, but left fielder Dylan Moore made a stunning diving catch to end the inning, saving Hernandez from even more damage. It generated the familiar scream and fist pump from Hernandez, who charged from the mound to meet Moore coming in from left field.