Soak it all in, folks – all the grand gestures and trademark mannerisms, all the splendor that’s left of Felix Hernandez. Even if you have to use your imagination. Hey, a little nostalgia never hurt anyone. Baseball thrives on it.
The exhortations after a key out. The slow stroll to the dugout after a completed inning. The attitude he exudes, perhaps more a façade than anything these days, but a paean to truly great memories nevertheless.
These are the final days of The King, in the dregs of another lost Mariners season, so savor every outing. Because each might be the last. There was, in fact, no guarantee Hernandez would ever set foot on the T-Mobile Park mound again once he went on an extended stint on the injured list. Many people figured it was over for him in Seattle.
But there Hernandez was Saturday night, sauntering in from the bullpen to his trademark song, “The Man” by Aloe Blacc.
I played my cards and I didn’t fold
Well it ain’t hard when you got soul (this is my world)
Somewhere I heard that life is a test
I been through the worst but I still give my best
Savor it all, what you see on the field, and what you likely won’t see again except in your mind’s highlight reel. Think back to the glory days, albeit with more than a touch of melancholy, back to when a Felix Hernandez start meant something.
“Happy Felix Day” was a regional catch phrase, because each start by The King came with the promise of something special happening. Mostly because of the special things that did happen, on a regular basis.
It’s been a long time since Hernandez delivered something special on a mound in Seattle, or anywhere else. His career has sadly faded into an amalgam of disappointing starts, of promised changes in approach that never seemed to take hold.
Stretches of bad months segued into stretches of bad years. Hernandez is an old 33, victimized by all those magnificent innings, all those wicked pitches, as well as a stubborn adherence to the belief that he could still bring them all back. Despite all the evidence to the contrary.
But Saturday, facing the Toronto Blue Jays in front of a typically Canada-centric crowd, Hernandez summoned a few echoes of glory past.
Sure, it was accompanied by two rocket home runs, and some shaky command, because that has become an inescapable part of the Hernandez repertoire.
By the time Scott Servais came out to get him with two outs in the sixth inning, when Hernandez left to the sort of sustained standing ovation that used to be his theme music, there was relief in the air.
No one wants to see Hernandez humiliated on his way out. He’s had enough of a taste of that over these past few years. So there was a cringe when his very first pitch of the game — his first on a major-league mound in more than three months — was blasted to center field by Bo Bichette. But Jake Fraley ran it down, and Hernandez found a groove.
He worked 5 2/3 innings, allowing three hits and three walks, plus a hit batter. The King struck out four. The two runs he allowed came on those solo homers by Teoscar Hernandez and Bichette.
“People want to write him off and everything else, but when the bell rings, if he’s got enough in the tank to go out there and compete, he does a heck of a job,’’ Servais said.
Truth be told, a lot of hard-hit balls resulted in outs. He couldn’t always get his changeup to work, or command his fastball – what have become familiar laments.
But Hernandez gutted and guiled his way into the sixth inning. He gave the vintage King’s Court something to cheer about, as they did with gusto all night. It was perversely fitting, of course, that the Mariner bullpen would blow the 5-2 lead that could have given Hernandez his 170th career victory. The Hernandez canon overflows with the yearning of what could have been, if only he had been given run support or better relief help.
Was he nervous, returning to the mound after so long? The very question seemed to confound him.
“Come on, man. I’ve been here 15 years. Why would I be nervous? No. No. I just want to go out there and pitch. It was fun.”
What of the ovation he got, even from the Blue Jays faithful, when he came out of the game and greeted his teammates in the dugout with animated high-fives?
“I’m King Felix, brother. Just kidding. That was good. Just to be out there with my teammates and compete against anybody, it was fun.”
It may not have been special, but it was memorable, even with the silly black uniform he was wearing. Every start remaining for Hernandez – maybe five or six if he stays healthy – will be that, a memory to cling to.
No one knows what will come of Hernandez’s career after this season, or if it will even continue. All that is known with close to certainty is that it won’t happen in Seattle, where for much of the past 15 seasons he has often been the best part of the local baseball team.
Another big part of the Hernandez lore — on top of his wondrous stuff he displayed every fifth day – is that he was The One Who Stayed. But that beautiful marriage is headed for a mutual dissolution. When the 2019 season ends Sept. 29, so does the Felix Hernandez era in Seattle, barring a spectacular mutual change of heart that is simply not on the horizon.
And that means that every Hernandez start henceforth is a gift of sorts. You can choose to focus on The King’s inexorable downturn or his hard-headedness in both accepting and responding to it.
I prefer to reflect on the joy he provided as the most dominant pitcher in the game for a good long stretch, and savor whatever moments remain. The next time “The Man” plays, and Hernandez strolls in, I’ll be soaking it in again.
Stand up now and face the sun
Won’t hide my tail or turn and run
It’s time to do what must be done
Be a king when kingdom comes