Castles in the Sand

When the waters rise, will our castles remain?

Baseball jersey back with 34 and Hernandez

Saturday evening I attended a baseball game in Seattle and watched my beloved Mariners lose.

Nothing about that sentence is notable, as I’ve attended many games and been tortured by my devotion to the Mariners throughout my life as they’ve lost far more than they’ve won. In fact, Saturday’s game felt more like a home game for the visiting Toronto Blue Jays due to the sheer volume (both in terms of attendance and sound) of fans making their way south from Canada to support their team.

What was notable, and the reason I chose to attend the game, was the man who stood on the mound for the Mariners at the start of the game. Returning for the first time since spending several months on the injured list, Felix Hernandez pitched for the Mariners.

Even that fact would not be particularly notable – aside from his injury keeping him out of the rotation lately – as Felix (we’re on a first-name basis) has spent 15 seasons pitching for the Mariners. Most of that time, he’s been their ace and one of the dominant pitchers in all of baseball.

It makes me feel old realizing he’s been pitching for so long, as he’s only about 18 months older than me. He arrived as a 19-year-old phenom in 2005 and offered glimpses of his immense potential over the next several years. I remember attending a game with friends during his first month in the big leagues and thinking about how this was a player who had the potential to be a Cy Young winner or throw a perfect game in the future (for non-baseball fans, the Cy Young Award goes to the top pitcher in the league each year, while a perfect game is one of the rarest feats in sports where a pitcher retires all 27 batters he faces without allowing a single person to reach base). He went on to achieve both, winning the Cy Young in 2010 (and finishing second two other years) and throwing baseball’s 23rd – and most recent – perfect game in 2012.

I probably don’t need to recap all of this, since local baseball fans know all of it and non-baseball fans probably stopped reading a long time ago. But Felix has been a steady presence in my life for 15 years; for a long time fans would greet the days he was scheduled to pitch with a cheerful “Happy Felix Day!”

He’s appeared in more than 400 games for the Mariners, and during those 15 seasons the team has been almost completely terrible. They have not made a single postseason appearance and, aside from a couple years, they were rarely close. Through all this, Felix was the bright star: the top prospect who had been signed by the team out of Venezuela as a teenager and made good on his talent. Further, he resigned with the Mariners when the top teams in baseball (*cough* Yankees *cough*) were all hopeful to take him away. For a long time, the tagline on one of the top Mariners fan blogs was “Felix is ours and you can’t have him.”

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. Despite being only 33 years old, Felix has aged much faster than we would have hoped. He put a lot of innings on his arm at a very young age and spent a lot of time carrying bad Mariners teams. Over the past five years, he’s begun to wear down, becoming less effective as injuries and wear and tear took their toll. What looked to be a sure-fire Hall of Fame career five years ago has whimpered to what appears to be the finish line. His contract is up at the end of the season, and all indications are that the Mariners are not going to resign him.

All of this was in my mind when I decided Saturday was an important game. Coming back from an injury, and with his “stuff” already deteriorating beyond the injuries, I expected little in the way of strong performance. But I knew this could be my last chance to cheer for the man we’d come to call King Felix, my last chance to chant with the crowd to encourage a strikeout whenever a batter reached two strikes, my last chance to witness a Mariners legend in person.

Loyalty means a lot to me, as, I suspect, it does to most people. Unfortunately, in sports we as fans often expect a level of loyalty from the players that we don’t expect from the teams. Because we’re rooting for the teams themselves (essentially laundry, as Jerry Seinfeld joked), we hold the players to a higher standard than the people running the team. We feel personally betrayed when players choose to take more money to go elsewhere or pursue an opportunity closer to where they grew up or where there’s a better chance to win (although we’re sometimes willing to forgive some of those rationalizations), despite the fact that we weigh those exact same concerns when we pursue jobs.

The flip side is fan loyalty. Attendance always suffers when teams do poorly, which is completely understandable, and some people scoff at what they call “fair weather fans.” But for me, the sport is about more than winning or losing; it’s about the experience. Of course, I have to cling to something like that, because all of my teams have done significantly more losing than winning in my lifetime. Even so, I pay close attention and follow and cheer for the Mariners throughout their nearly-20-year playoff drought (the longest active drought of any team in the four major US sports leagues). I supported the Seahawks through a lot of bad years before their recent run of success, and it makes me ever more thankful for the times they do win.

Baseball has always been my first love sport. And, as someone who grew up in this area, the Mariners have always been my team. At times (to be honest, most of the time), that’s been rough. But for nearly 15 years we had hope of something better. Every fifth day, we knew Felix was taking the mound and we might see history. The joy with which he carried himself just increased our joy in watching him succeed. And his decision to stay when he could have (and honestly should have) left for greener pastures and a better chance to win will always be something I’m thankful for.

I love Felix in the same way I love Edgar, the other Mariners superstar who stayed. Even now, I hope Felix fully recovers and has a chance to continue his career elsewhere. It would be sad seeing him in another team’s uniform, but I want him to achieve the accolades he missed out on here by pitching in the playoffs and maybe even bouncing back enough to build the case for the Hall of Fame.

That likely won’t happen, and even if he plays somewhere else, it probably won’t last as he finishes up a highly distinguished career. If that’s the case, I’ll continue to proudly wear my jersey and remember him as one of the all-time great Mariners. He made being a fan the past 15 years worthwhile.

And despite all the circumstances going against him on Saturday, Felix pitched well. He pitched almost six innings, allowing only two runs on three hits, and left with the lead. The team behind him failed to hold the lead, and he left without the win, just like so many other times over the past 15 years. But that never stopped him from coming back the next time and doing it all over again, and it’s never stopped me from caring about the team I grew up watching and supporting. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to see him again before the end of the season, but if not, I’ll be thankful for Saturday and the standing ovation we gave him upon his exit from the mound.

Thank you, Felix, for 15 wonderful years. Although the end is coming sooner and sadder than I ever would’ve hoped, you’ve provided so much joy and truly lived up to the promise you had when you burst on the scene at 19 years old in August 2005.

Felix is ours, and you can’t have him. Regardless of what happens in the future, he’ll always be ours. Long live the king.

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