When this forgettable Mariners season comes to a close Sunday, Felix Hernandez will likely have pitched his last game as a Mariner. He may never again play in the majors. He is only 33 years old, and already it's time to eulogize.
It would be nice to suggest no one saw this coming, but there is a nausea baseball fans experience that accompanies love of any pitcher. Whereas hitters often continue to thrive well into their 40s, pitchers fall off a cliff around age 30. They lose their juice. The heater drifts from the 90s down into the 80s, and we watch them dissolve, flail, vanish.
For me, hope for Felix was always thin and desperate. Aging pitchers who can continue to play, albeit at a lower level, adjust. Rich Hill, for example, washed out of the majors and signed with the Long Island Ducks of the unaffiliated Atlantic League, where he began throwing his curveball as his dominant pitch. Hill, 39 years old, is now in the last year of a $48 million contract with the Dodgers. For Felix to last, and for Felix to make the Hall of Fame, he needed to learn to pitch like an old pitcher. But despite many overtures from his coaches, Felix never quite adjusted. He threw his heater like the old days, and we watched him get lit up, week after week, for years.
But even when Felix was at his peak, even when he won a Cy Young award, we knew it couldn't last. He signed his $175 million dollar contract in 2013, and we knew. We knew it would be painful. It has been.
In his prime, Felix never got his moment of glory. He threw a perfect game, but it happened at noon on a weekday. Nobody saw it. Not live, anyway. And he never once made the postseason, despite playing alongside Ichiro Suzuki for the better part of a decade.
Now, in a year that began with Ichiro's retirement, Felix, too, has left us.
But there were the good days. When he debuted, Felix had a fastball that could touch 100 mph. He was only 19 and the sky was the limit. He became the King. He had his own rooting section, "the King's Court," not the first of its kind, but the first to ever be a big success. When Yankees fans sit in Aaron Judge's "Judge Chambers," they sit also in Felix's shadow.
He threw a changeup unlike any other, one that bottomed out only inches in front of the plate. He had a gorgeous looping curveball that made hitters swing and miss, falling to their knees. And he was happy. So happy. It was a joy to watch him pitch because he loved it. He wore his emotions on his sleeve, and it was infectious.
I lived in Seattle for much of his prime, and because he played on bad teams, you could show up at the stadium on a given day, drop $8, and see him pitch. I went to games where he struck out 12, 14, 15 hitters. I shared a kind of rapture and joy with thousands of other people. I'm not Christian, but watching Felix was a kind of grace. It was beautiful.
Around town, one in every five days he was up on a screen somewhere, a constant in our lives for more than a decade. I remember walking in downtown Seattle and seeing him on the mound, in multiples, through the windows of a sports bar. It was something you always had to look forward to.
The lasting image of his career, for me, will be the final game of the 2014 season. At daybreak, the Mariners were only a game out of the Wild Card, and they had a chance to make the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. Felix was set to pitch.
He threw a gem. Seven strikeouts, no walks, and he gave up just a single hit. He got the win. But he was pulled in the sixth inning because Oakland had just beaten the Rangers and clinched the last playoff spot. The Mariners' season was over.
The Mariners' manager, Lloyd McClendon, emerged from the dugout, wiping his eyes. He took the ball out of Felix's hand. Felix walked to the bench and the crowd rose for a standing ovation. The Mariners had failed, and yet, somehow, it was beautiful. ♦