I’ve been dreading this for so long. I’ve dreaded this season, I dreaded this game, and the last thing I ever wanted to do is write this blog post. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. And yet, it couldn’t have ended more appropriately for this team and this icon.
I was on Twitter the instant the Mariners first announced the final King’s Court of the season. I knew this day was coming, and I kinda hoped it would land on a Friday or Saturday, but it’s probably better it was on a Thursday. Fewer fair-weather fans whose only goal is to bro it up in The Pen. To go to this game, you had to be a real die-hard Felix fan; save the posers for Oktoberfest Night on Saturday (of which I am absolutely one, and will be in attendance for that as well).
Without blinking, I clicked the link and bought two tickets, not sure if I’d find anyone else who’d be free to go. I had seats 1 & 2 in Row 6 of one of the two original King’s Court sections (closest to home plate) before they expanded it to a quarter of the stadium. I’ve been in the King’s Court only a small handful of times, including one of the best pitching performances I’ve ever seen in person (click that link for more). I was at the Supreme Court which followed his perfect game, and I was at the most recent Turn Ahead The Clock Night when I walked away with a sweet red & silver t-shirt and K-card. Every time it’s been an unbelievably fun and memorable experience, but last night really topped them all.
My emotions were already all over the place before I even got to the stadium. I’d done my best in the days since I got the tickets to not think about it too much; denial is one of my greatest weapons in life. So, when the time came to leave work and mosey on over to Sluggers for some pre-game food and tallboys, it took every fiber of my being to not continuously blubber my way through the next few hours.
A few years back, in the King’s prime, I bought a t-shirt with his giant face on it. I’d never worn it for a variety of reasons: for a while there, I’d simply out-grown it through weight gain, plus it’s a white t-shirt and I generally don’t like to wear them very often as they tend to get dingy pretty fast. Plus, I mean, it’s a weird shirt! It’s got a giant head on it; it’s not like I can wear it many places without getting curious looks, and I’m not the kind of guy who likes to attract attention from strangers. I didn’t intend to save it for a special occasion, but when this came up, I dug it out from the back of my closet and wore it with pride last night.
We got to our seats at about 6:50pm, in plenty of time for the first of many standing ovations for our King. I’d noticed in recent years that the fans in the King’s Court were less inclined to stand and chant compared to when it was brand new. The whole point of being in the King’s Court is that it’s like a football atmosphere; most baseball games are stuffy and quiet, only erupting when something great happens. But, in the Court, we also erupt with the anticipation of something great happening; you know, like football crowds getting loud when the defense is on the field before every play. Thankfully, last night, everybody was really into it. We stood for the entire first inning! And, we had no qualms jumping out of our seats whenever the count got to two strikes. It hasn’t felt like that since the early days of the King’s Court (part of that is performance-based – Felix hasn’t been his usual dominant self in recent seasons – but part of that, I think, has to do with the fans, either being too jaded or over it or otherwise taking it all for granted).
In a cruel twist of fate, Angel Hernandez was behind the plate for this one, and believe you me, he heard it from us after every single non-strike call. He’s terrible anyway, so wearing it from the crowd was entirely justified. I don’t actually know how bad the umpiring was, but come on man, read the fucking room!
Anyway, the outing was far from ideal. Felix struggled through the first, but the damage was limited to one run after a bunch of pitches. He got tagged with a 2-run homer in the second (where apparently the guy who walked ahead of him should’ve been called out on his check-swing, but what else is new?), but settled down after that. The Mariners did have a couple errors on the night (at least one the King had to work around; I don’t remember when the other one happened), but he also benefitted by some truly outstanding plays behind him (including a diving catch by Dylan Moore in left field that surely would’ve been a bases-clearing double in the fifth).
His final line in a Mariners uniform: 5.1 innings, 5 hits, 3 runs, 4 walks, and 3 strikeouts. We didn’t get as many K’s as we would’ve liked, but when they came, the roar from the crowd – combined with the King turning toward us and acknowledging our adoration – was practically a religious experience. When he got out of the fifth on that diving catch, lingering on the field to give some love to Moore for his play, he was already over that 100-pitch mark. I started to well up then and there, knowing that was likely his final inning for the Mariners. I figured Scott would let him warm up for the sixth and then give him a final curtain call before seeing another batter, but he let him go up against one more. Robbie Grossman is the final batter King Felix saw as a member of the Seattle Mariners; he lined out to center on an 82mph change up.
Then, Scott came out of the dugout to a round of boos, but we quickly shifted to an explosion of gratitude. I’m literally STILL crying just thinking about it. I took dozens of pictures that I’ll hang onto, but I also tried to just be in the moment and soak it all up.
For what it’s worth, I know there’s the argument that they should’ve just let Felix stay out there for as long as he wanted, but in hindsight it’s better this way. It’s been pretty ugly for Felix the last few seasons, the last thing you want to do is have his final game end that way too. I’ll tell you what, though, if he’d ended his night with a strikeout, we’d be sitting around today talking about Beastquake 2.0.
I’ve written about Felix Hernandez more than anyone else since I started this blog (unofficially) back in 2008. I grew up as a child idolizing Steve Largent as my all-time favorite athlete, but King Felix has blown past the hall of fame wide receiver like he wasn’t even there. I’ve said it before and I’ll gladly say it again: I’m not a Mariners fan, I’m a Felix fan. He’s been – more times than is remotely appropriate – the only good thing about following this franchise in the years since he came up. I love Felix like he’s a member of my family, which is what makes this moment so heartbreaking for me. He’s been such a constant in my life – ever dependable and dominant and delightful – that I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself now that he’ll be finishing his career elsewhere.
It wasn’t supposed to go down this way. Well, that’s not totally true; for a while there it looked like it WAS supposed to end prematurely, but then he decided to sign an extension with the Mariners through the bulk of his career, and from then on I was convinced he’d always be ours. Spending your entire career in one city is so rare in this day and age, but it really felt like he was going to do it. I don’t want to sour this post by talking about the hardships of the last few years, but it sucks, you know? He was supposed to settle into a Bartolo Colon role in his mid-to-late 30’s, and he very well still might! But, it’ll have to be in another organization, which is depressing as all get out.
Of course, the worst part of all of this is that he’s still never tasted the post-season. All he’s wanted to do since he got here was win, and all the Mariners rewarded him with was mediocrity, with a few tantalizingly-close contending seasons sprinkled in. Sure, the organization let us all down with their poor drafting, poor trades, and poor player development, but it feels worse that they let HIM down. He was so fucking good for so fucking long, and he never got to showcase his greatness in the game’s brightest stage. He might catch on somewhere for a playoff run next year, and I hope he gets to see that drought eliminated, but he won’t get to do it with his filthy stuff of old. He’ll have to get crafty with it, and I hope he has it in him.
I know that eventually I’ll move on. There are some promising young players coming through the system who will turn into stars for the Mariners relatively soon. But, I don’t know if anyone will ever be as beloved as The King. He’s one of a kind. I’ll miss him. It won’t be the same when we don’t get to greet each other with “Happy Felix Day” every fifth game. The stadium will be that much less raucous without the court behind him. But, we’ll have our memories. I’ll be able to tell anyone who asks that I got to see one of the best pitchers of my generation playing for my hometown team. For that, I can only say to Felix …