A man in black stands in the bullpen. He looks different than the last time we saw him here, almost six months ago now. The strange uniform hangs off him so loosely; his hair is clipped shorter; his beard is longer. It is the early evening, and the sky is loosely clouded, the light and shadow falling in that way that is so familiar now, the way it only does in this specific place, this close to the ocean in the west.
The energy, though, is not familiar for this building: the loud blue everywhere, the excitement of thousands who are experiencing something they can only have once a year, or once every few years, or even once in a lifetime. They are not here for the man in black; he might as well be one of the shadows.
In the corner, though, above the bullpen, the faithful form their block of yellow. They hold up their signs, and the kids wear their little foam crowns. And if it wasn’t for the fact that the words they hold up mirror the ones sewn to the back of his uniform, you might not know that the person they were so excited to see is the same subdued presence now taking the man.
It is the 209th time that Félix Hernández has started a game in this ballpark.
In 2014, in his age-28 season, Félix Hernández pitched the third-most innings of any pitcher in baseball. He had the fourth-highest WAR that season, the third-lowest FIP, an ERA that was second only to Clayton Kershaw’s. That season, the Mariners finished above .500 for just the third time in Hernández’s career; at 87-75, they ended up third in the division, just one game behind the A’s for the Wild Card. Hernández started 34 of those games, the most games started by any pitcher; the Mariners won 22 of those 34.
The beginning of the 2015 season carried with it a real promise of contention for Seattle. And as had been the case for the six years that preceded it, King Félix would open the Mariners’ season at home this year, for the first time in a few Opening Days. After his final dominant spring training start, Hernández declared that he was “really happy.” He went on to tell the Seattle Times, with enthusiasm you can feel even through the text:
The changeup was nice. The slider was good. The fastball was unbelievable. And when my fastball is good, that makes everything better. … It feels really good, man. My arm, legs, my whole body feels really good.”
It was an assertion that was all the more emphatic given the context of Hernández’s most recent start before this one, wherein he’d given up six runs in just two and two-thirds innings — an uncharacteristic performance even in the low-stakes context of spring training. Baseball fans love to catastrophize, and spring, with its lack of actual games and performances to draw from, is a great time to do so. But Hernández was confident.
And his Opening Day line, facing the Angels in front of a packed house, was equally so: seven innings pitched, 10 strikeouts, two hits, one walk, a hit batter, and a single run off the bat of Mike Trout. The Mariners won 4—1, in two hours and 33 minutes. On the final pitch of Hernández’s outing — a fastball for a called strike three — the stadium roared.
Until June, Hernández was consistently vintage King Félix. But on June 1, he was blown out at home by the Yankees, allowing seven earned runs in just 4 2/3 innings against the Yankees. Two starts later in Houston, he allowed eight earned runs and exited the game having recorded just a single out — the worst start of his career. Over a span of three starts, his ERA jumped from 1.91 to 3.38.
There were more of those games: July 29, seven runs at home against Arizona; August 15, 10 runs in two and a third at Fenway. The Mariners ended 2015 with a 76-86 record. And in 2016, the decline became evident. His average fastball velocity in April was 91.09, a full two ticks below where it had been in September, and did not improve in May. Hernández hit the injured list on May 31. He did not pitch again until July 20. He did not record another scoreless start until September 10 in Oakland; in his next start, at home, he allowed six runs on two homers in 4 1/3 innings. The Mariners lost 6-0.
Every manic episode is manic in its own way, but depressive episodes are all the same. If there was some novelty to it, some variety in the day-to-day drudgery — if, every time, you could discover a fun new way to feel numb — then it would at least be entertaining. There would at least be a narrative to follow, a story to tell when it’s over. You could imagine an ending. But when every day brings the same smothering inability to do anything — to be alive the way people are supposed to be — there is no form to the story, no trend to identify. It is shapeless and enveloping, and the hours begin to bleed into each other, then the days, then weeks. Nothing begins. Nothing can end.
It was in the middle of one very long, very difficult such episode — namely, the overwhelming majority of the year 2016 — that I became enamored with not just the game of baseball itself, but with the structure of it all. The way that everything is contained inside the monumental walls of the stadium, with their no-re-entry rules, and beyond the walls contained on the field, inaccessible to spectators, and on the field contained between the lines — every action down to the smallest quantifiable and repeated, returning and returning again. I had once resented the limitations of the baseball I watched. Those limitations had now become a shelter. Baseball was a shape to pour the nothingness into.
And as the season went on, I found myself wanting more and more to go to a baseball game. To be there, sitting and watching, confined to the seat I had paid for. So I saved up my money. I bought tickets for myself and my family. I let the days pass by, and in what seemed like both a very long time and no time at all, the otherwise nondescript Wednesday had arrived.
When we finally got through the gate, I raced up the stairs with my brother, the expanse of the field slowly becoming visible. A crowd was already forming around the visitors’ dugout, and we ran down there, too. We were so close to the field that I could have hopped onto it. We stood there, pressed together, all those strangers’ arms reaching over the wall to the field, squeezing in between rows of seats, as a few members of the Jays’ bullpen took the field. My heart beating so fast, the way it did when I was alone in the dark and afraid of nothing, of how huge and overwhelming the nothing is, but I wasn’t afraid this time. This time, it was telling me that I was alive.
Our seats were way up high in the 300s, looking over the third-base line. We were surrounded by Jays fans up there: unpleasant drunk guys, enthusiastic kids. The elderly couple sitting next to us had driven all the way from northern BC the day before — eight hours on the road — only to find that there were no hotel rooms available. They slept in their car. They were so happy to be there. And still, surrounded by Jays fans, the King’s Court small in the distance, a lone Mariners fan dutifully chanted every time Hernández worked a two-strike count: K! K! K! K! K!
Below on the field, the pitchers shone: Aaron Sanchez bending but not breaking, and Hernández — despite three walks — dominant. The Mariners scratched a run across in the third, after which the two pitchers exchanged zeros. The Jays could only muster two hits against Hernández. Both teams were the Wild Card race, with the Jays on top and the Mariners just a few games behind, and with the final out of each frame, the tension grew thicker, the dueling cheers louder. Whenever Hernández threw to first, the stadium was wracked with boos, then cheers, then boos of the cheers. It was impossible to determine the overall intention of the wall of noise; it simply was, immense and tangible, encircling the ballpark.
The final out of the top of the seventh was a groundout off the bat off Michael Saunders. Hernández watched the play. He walked off the mound, alone and bright in the sunlight, and I could see every movement he was making clearly, even from where I was. He thumped his chest, then he looked out at the crowd, the immense noise of celebration and frustration coming down on him, enveloping us all. He pointed down — down at the grass he walked on, the shape he had spent so much of his life occupying — and yelled something I couldn’t hear. He left the diamond. I didn’t see him again after that.
This is my house, he said. This is my house.
The game lasted four and a half hours, stretching beyond its limits into the late afternoon. The sun slowly faded behind the stadium lights, and a wind kicked up. Shivering, I didn’t leave my seat. Doing so would have felt disrespectful in some way. I was a guest, after all. And I was so grateful to be there, on that specific day, seeing the game that I was seeing.
When the Mariners finally won on a sacrifice fly, after a Josh Donaldson error in the 12th, and the team sprinted out to surround Guillermo Heredia, I felt less disappointed that the Jays had lost a game in the Wild Card race than that the game was over. That I couldn’t just stay there forever, waiting expectantly for a run that would never score, the innings cycling below on the unchanging green of the diamond. But I couldn’t. I picked myself up, shivering cold and sunburned, and began to make my way down the steps.
I remember almost nothing from that year. But I remember Félix Hernández at Safeco Field, walking into the light, fist on his chest.
When Randal Grichuk comes up to the plate with two out in the bottom of the sixth, the stadium is buzzing. The Mariners are in the lead; Hernández has limited the Jays to just two runs on three hits. The first out of this inning was Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The second was an eight-pitch battle against Rowdy Tellez, and the now-loud chants of K! K! K! K! were rewarded with a curveball, diving away from Tellez’s bat.
Hernández has spent his entire major-league career pitching in the structure we now call T-Mobile Park. It hasn’t been the same for Hernández here, not for quite a while now. But it is the place that has held his career in baseball for so long now. It is the place where he achieved perfection.
To have a place you know you will return to, where you know the shape of what will happen — the ritual, the steady repetition, reliable no matter what else might be happening in your life or in the world — to have a place where you know who you are and what you are supposed to do is no small thing. When this outing is done, he will be that much closer to leaving. After that comes the unknown–the formless, intolerable unknown.
Now, he quickly falls behind Grichuk 3-1. But Grichuk fouls off the next three pitches. Every ball that flies into the stands turns up the volume a little more. Hernández is just returning after months of recovery from injury. Everyone knows his pitch count will be limited. Every pitch he throws is bringing him closer to his exit. If it could just be one last strikeout–
The pitch is a sinker over the plate, and Grichuk doubles. It’s over.
The infielders gather around Hernández on the mound. He hands the ball to Scott Servais and walks off the diamond, out of sight.