With no more guarantees, appreciate Félix Hernández while you still can
Feb. 26 at Sloan Park in Mesa, Ariz., was about as perfect a spring training day as you could ask for. Unmarked blue sky, still reasonable temperatures, still the feel of excitement in the air as the spring season was brand new. I had finished my pregame work early and was happy to have the extra time to take in the sights and sounds of the Chicago Cubs’ spring home.
Having grown up in Illinois a Cubs fan, I no doubt had more appreciation for the atmosphere than most of the visitors in the press box that day. Hearing the familiar accents, seeing Cubbie blue everywhere as I sought out a breaded pork tenderloin sandwich – a Midwest staple – in an outfield stand, it took me back to my roots, both geographical and baseball-wise. I decided I needed to stop and smell the baseball roses for a few minutes, something I had found less and less time to do in recent years.
On my way back to the press box I saw a crowd of fans around the Mariners’ bullpen. Most were wearing Cubs gear, but a good number were in Mariners garb, and all were hanging over the railing watching what was going on below. Félix Hernández was going through his pregame bullpen session. I leaned over the rail with the rest of the fans and just watched. I wasn’t reporting anything, I wasn’t tweeting pictures or videos. This wasn’t about the hashtag. I just wanted to watch and enjoy like everybody else there.
As I watched Félix go about his work, I observed those who were gathered there shoulder to shoulder clearly excited to be so close not just to baseball, but to one of baseball’s standouts: Félix.
Despite the down years, despite the questions circling about what the King had left, that was still Félix Hernández. The same Félix Hernández that racked up the accomplishments year after year starting at the young age of 19. The same Félix Hernández that had kept the Mariners on the baseball map through lean years.
Standing in the sunshine, looking down at No. 34, that day I made a mental note that regardless of what turns his season would take this year, good or bad, I needed to remember to appreciate him.
Twenty minutes later, Félix was struck on the right arm by a vicious line drive off the bat of Cubs catcher Victor Caratini, and for a short time it appeared my realization may have come too late. For all of the frustration Félix had caused in his last sub-par season, the thought of him all of the sudden being gone without a fight from the rotation that he had anchored for the better part of a decade was nauseating.
I have no idea what is going to happen when Félix takes the mound tonight, and neither do the Mariners.
“The Mariners have relied on Félix for a lot of years to take the ball,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said Tuesday afternoon. “We are going to rely on him again on Thursday. And we are going to take it day by day and just see where we are as a team.”
It would appear there are no commitments beyond today, and if that is indeed the current status, it is not hard to justify. For as much as I still believe that Félix has enough stuff left to compete and contribute, he hasn’t figured out how to bring it out on a consistent basis. The reasons why, at this point four months into the season, aren’t important. If he truly still has it, either he does it, or he doesn’t.
I hope we see fight tonight. I hope we see the same fight we saw the last time Félix faced the Blue Jays at Safeco Field. You remember the game. Late September, a Wednesday afternoon. Félix silenced the rowdy Canadians who made up a good percentage of the sold out stadium.
“This is my house!” he roared coming off the field after pitching seven scoreless innings. That was just two years ago.
I trust Dipoto will make the right decisions when it comes to who gives this team the best chance to win every five days. In the position the Mariners are now in, what Félix has done in the past is no longer a factor. That is the business side of baseball.
On the other side of baseball, the past is never erased. I hope Félix gives Mariners fans another opportunity to appreciate him, and if not, well, I think they owe him one.
Some day, be it sooner or later, the player that has given Mariners fans more to cheer about than any other man who has worn the uniform the last 15 years will no longer be here. Remember to appreciate him while you can.