Happy Felix Day?
Not exactly. The farewell party for Felix Hernandez on Thursday at T-Mobile Park wasn’t quite a joyous occasion.
Massively emotional, yes (and I have the Kleenex to prove it). Bittersweet, certainly. Poignant, without question. Wistful, most definitely.
Everyone was feeling the gravity of the night, most of all Felix, who seemed intent on making it an interactive experience. One last time, he wore his intensity, and sentimentality, for the world to see, as raw and authentic as it could be. And he tried to share all his feelings with the crowd. The King’s tears when pulled from the game in the sixth inning tugged at heartstrings all over the baseball world.
But happy? It was hard to embrace that emotion based on the way this relationship, once as mutually satisfying as any in baseball, is ending. Not with a bang or whimper, but a melancholy sigh.
What was once unthinkable is now inevitable: The Felix Hernandez era, which glimmered with limitless possibilities for the franchise, is over.
And that is how it must be. Sad to say, it’s time.
Thankfully, it won’t end in rancor or bitterness. There’s too much shared history, and affection, for that. It’s more like a couple that splits up amicably after years of a happy marriage because their goals and sensibilities no longer align. Call it irreconcilable differences.
“All the years I played with Seattle, I was just having fun,” he said afterward, still choked up at the memory of what just occurred. “I really thank the organization for the opportunity when I was 16 years old. I came to the big leagues when I was 19. It’s a lot of different things going through my mind right now. I don’t even know what to say.”
The Mariners are in the process of a massive rebuild, one in which a declining 33-year-old pitcher, even one as immensely popular and with such a long list of signature moments, no longer fits.
And if Felix is going to reinvent himself and continue his career — no guarantee at this point — he needs a new locale and new voices to shake him out of his malaise. Maybe the parting gift the Mariners give Felix is the motivation to prove to them he’s not done yet.
“We’ll see if I can find a job,” he said. “But I’m not retiring. You saw me pitch today. I can still go out there and compete.”
The fans, not quite filling half the stadium, and with half of those comprising the expanded King’s Court, hung on Hernandez’s every move. For the A’s, it was a critical game in the wild-card race. For the Mariners, irrelevant in the playoff chase for five months, it was a chance to showcase, salute and ponder the legacy of an icon.
And the crowd was fully on board. Every time Hernandez reached two strikes, which was frequent, the familiar, full-throated “K” chant reverberated throughout the stadium. It was as if they were trying to will The King back to the days when strikeouts flowed with ease.
“Today was rocking, it was popping,” Hernandez said. “It was good. I was trying to strike out a lot of people. I think in the first two innings that got me in trouble. But after that I settled down.”
Nowadays, Hernandez often lacks command and the consistent putaway pitch, and it has haunted him. But he came up with three of them — whiffing Sean Murphy for the second out in the second, Chad Pinder to end the third, and Seth Brown for the second out in the fifth.
The eruption of noise after each was visceral — and Hernandez immediately pointed to the Court after the first two. Everyone got what they came for. Almost.
But real life is not a fairy tale, and Hernandez was touched for three runs in the first two innings, including a two-run homer by Matt Chapman. He would give up five hits and walk four in 5 1/3 innings. But he battled with all his will, and avoided the blowout that often lurked, and would have been the ultimate letdown.
Naturally, and fittingly, the Mariners’ offense failed Hernandez, as it did so often throughout his career, undermining masterpiece after masterpiece. When Felix took the mound in the sixth inning, his teammates allowing him to go out alone to milk the ovation, he trailed 3-1 and was nearing 100 pitches.
The end was approaching, and the sense of both foreboding and something akin to sorrow was palpable. The leadoff hitter, Robbie Grossman, flied out to center. Out of the dugout came manager Scott Servais to get Hernandez. His 15-year run of brilliance in Seattle was over, and it didn’t hit just Felix hard. He was openly weeping, but so were Servais and Kyle Seager, the only current Mariner who remembers when Hernandez’s dominance was a common occurrence. Servais never got to see that, unlike his managerial predecessors, but his reverence was well-expressed before and after the game.
“It was difficult,” Hernandez said. “It was emotional. I was trying to strike out the last guy. I couldn’t do it for my fans out there. But it was hard because I saw my teammates out there. It was hard not to cry.”
Hernandez hugged his infielders one by one and slowly walked off the mound, gesturing to the crowd and touching his heart. As the A’s players stood on the dugout steps applauding, Hernandez bowed deeply to the crowd and disappeared into the dugout and a sea of hugs. He emerged one more time for a curtain call, and was gone until the Mariners’ 3-1 loss was complete. Then he trotted out to King’s Court and interacted with the inhabitants of what he called “the best section in baseball.”
And so a Mariners season that began in Japan with a heartfelt farewell to one legend, Ichiro, ends with another. I was churning with mixed emotions as the evening progressed, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. It’s hard not to think the Mariners ultimately let Hernandez down by not surrounding him with the team that could have showcased his talents in the postseason. And Hernandez, for whatever reason — you could debate that one for months — began an inexorable decline four years ago.
Yet the joy and passion he had for the Mariners and Seattle was real and heartwarming. The exploits that propped up a succession of drab Mariners seasons were real, too, and indelible. I give Hernandez full credit for never once, not even in private, griping about the lack of run support. He always had his teammates’ back.
And, in the end, they had his, too — especially Dylan Moore, whose brilliant leaping catch to end the fifth inning with the bases loaded — “un-bee-lievable,” Felix said, drawing out the word — averted disaster. Before the game, Servais had said, “He’s been such a big part of this organization for so long you do want him to go out on a high note.”
Hernandez went out with a full display of the passion that made him special. And, come to think of it, that made it a Happy Felix Day.