I went to the ballpark today for the first time in months. My Seattle Mariners are atrocious, and the only reason I attended was to see Felix Hernandez pitch. Felix is our golden boy; only twenty-four, he’s one of the best pitchers in the league. He is a large Venezuelan guy, and he wears his hat tilted slightly to the side. His body language is loose and cool – a manifestation of how easy the game is to him. He slouches inexplicably, and drags his feet when he walks. But he is prone to outbursts of vitality: when he crosses the baseline every inning, he leaps over it jauntily, happy to cast off another obstacle. When he strikes someone out in a critical moment, he bellows and pumps his fist. This isn’t hubris; it’s elation – the sign of a competitor, not a showboat.
I first saw Felix Hernandez pitch when he was eighteen, for the minor-league San Antonio Missions. It was dollar beer, pizza, hot dog, and soda night. I lucked out; in addition to the extraordinary specials, I got to watch the Man Who Would Be King. I knew about him already: he was the best prospect in our system, and he was already being called “King Felix” based on his potential. The pitcher I saw that day was pudgy and nonchalant, and his shirt had trouble staying tucked into his waistline. He was a six year-old Mozart, tapping on keys in pursuit of his symphony. He blew batters away, and the few mistakes were signs of youth more than weakness. When the catcher threw the ball back to him, he popped his bubble gum, and caught the ball with a haphazard swipe. He already knew he was the anointed one, and that unsettled me. Privilege breeds complacence, and I was worried he’d coast on his talent.
I no longer worry about such trifles. Felix has grown into the baddest pitcher in the American League. He is a front-runner for the Cy Young Award. He has trudged onward most admirably, through a particularly horrendous season of Mariners baseball. He leads the league in innings pitched, strikeouts, and ERA. He flattens Yankees and Red Sox by the dozens, and on their turf, no less. He is a bright spot on a largely depressing team.
So I went to the ballpark, for the first time in months. I’m a fair-weather fan, mostly for self-preservation. I don’t think it necessary to beat myself up when the Mariners suck. Instead, I stop paying attention. There’s no reason to let such a thing affect me.
When a team is as bad as these Mariners are, certain individuals gain significance. Felix Hernandez’s performance this year is a glaring glitch in the cosmic plan for Mariner misery. It’s too bad that the team is so terrible, but at this point, I don’t care. We have a champion pitcher, and when he is pitching, I feel marvelous. So what if we’re approaching 100 losses. We get to watch Felix Hernandez pitch every fifth day. As far as I’m concerned, we’re the luckiest fans around.
Today, I braved the rain to go sit in the bleachers, and to watch Felix pitch. From the cheapest seats in the house, I had a perfect perspective as Felix bore down on the helpless visiting Rangers. He turned batter after batter away from the box. Only a few hitters hit the ball squarely. I saw two or three feeble choppers tapped right back to Felix. He pounced on these dying grounders, and whipped them to first base with the same velocity of one of his pitches. I’m used to this – in addition to being a dominant hurler, Felix is one of the best fielding pitchers in the league. His instincts are tremendous. Early on in the game, a speedster named Julio Borbon laid down a good bunt. Felix sprang from the mound, jumped on the ball, and fired it to first base to beat Borbon easily.
After walking the very first man he faced, Felix retired twenty-one straight batters. After that initial walk, not one Ranger reached first base, from the first to the seventh inning. Felix strutted around like he owned the mound. Every batter’s presence was an insult. How dare they think they can challenge me?! He worked so quickly that if you took a bathroom break, you missed it. If I had to go, I made sure to go when the Rangers were on the field.
My friends and I sat idly as the Mariners batted. We rooted openly against our own team in anticipation of Felix’s return to the mound. We were bored by his absence; the promise of more Felix made us listless while we waited. And when he returned, we stood up and felt glorious. I sat rapt, entranced by the zip on his fastball. Before I knew it, Felix was wandering back to the dugout, with the stride of an aimless prodigy, as we whooped and shouted his name.
By the midpoint of the game, we all realized that Felix hadn’t allowed a hit. Only one of us had ever seen a no-hitter: my friend Brian, who had been in attendance for Chris Bosio’s no-hitter in 1994 in the Kingdome. By the seventh inning, we couldn’t sit down; we stood in our row with unsuppressed glee. It seemed to us that Felix was on the verge of his masterpiece. This was his symphony, playing before us in the form of 95 mile-per-hour fastballs on the edge of the plate, and the most futile pop flies you can imagine. I felt the joy of anticipation, a feeling sweeter than success itself. What possibilities lay in this game pitched by Felix! This could be the crown of my baseball spectatorship: my favorite Mariner, summiting against the hated Texas Rangers.
Then – on the second pitch of the eighth inning, a Ranger parked a ball into the center field beer garden. Our hope deflated. We leaned on each other for support, exhausted by what Felix had put us through. In the 6th and 7th innings, I had been a mess. My hands spent most of their time covering my face. It was rare and lovely: it’s not every day that a Seattle sports fan gets a thrill like Felix gave me. I shouted, and jumped up and down, and hugged my friends on either side. Felix was dominant; he was exhibiting the singular gift, which only the finest pitchers possess, of affecting the game in a blasphemous way. He was god today, on September 18th. The slump in the hitters’ shoulders, and the crestfallen angle of their batting helmets as they returned to the dugout, represented a reluctant praise of his dominance. We were all orbiting around Felix – not least his opponents.
It was a relief, then, when Nelson Cruz broke the spell with a long home run to center field. It was the bitterest relief, but relief nonetheless. Perfection remained elusive for Felix Hernandez. And for us fans, this can only be a good thing. That cocky, extraordinary teenager has grown into a glorious pitcher, the best who currently stalks the globe. As long as he isn’t quite perfect, he will strive for perfection. The most wonderful part is that last night wasn’t the best he has to offer. Until he throws that no-hitter, we get the privilege of anticipating it.
There is a bigger picture: Felix’s work will never be complete until a championship banner hangs at Safeco Field. This is why we love you, Felix: because you offer a taste of the Promised Land. Your teammates are lost, for now, but you are already a champion. Days like today, when your genius invades us, are what make you great. But a banner will make you my hero.
I don’t usually like to buy into hype, but…
The Cincinnati Reds just called up a 22 year-old left-handed pitcher named Aroldis Chapman. He defected from Cuba via Europe, and signed with the Reds for 30 million dollars. He is absolutely electrifying. He throws a baseball faster than anyone ever has – in his last appearance (the second of his career), he threw pitches of 103.8 and 103.9 miles per hour. He also throws a slider that moves sharply and travels over ninety miles per hour.
It’s really something to watch. Hitters are essentially worthless against him. If they are expecting the fastball, and he throws the fastball, they might have a chance if they time their swing perfectly. If he throws the slider, however, they miss by a foot. And if they are expecting the slider and he throws the fastball, there is no way they’re hitting it.
If you’d like to see him pitch, go to mlb.com and type his name in. Unfortunately, the MLB is pretty strict with their copyrights. NBA, NFL, and NHL footage are all over youtube, but the MLB is impossible to find except from the source. It’s too bad, really, because they’re missing out on a golden opportunity to market their lore.
WHOOOOSH. Swung on and missed.
Did you hear the news? Glenn Beck has saved us all by reclaiming American this past Saturday via a march on Washington, DC. It’s such a relief, really to know that Our America is safe again from the brown people terrorists.
Still, I’m willing to bet big money that all of the 7/11s in the DC metro area ran out of two things:
8/28 – never forget.
I just finished reading Satchel Paige’s autobiography. Satchel Paige is an old Negro League pitcher who pitched for forty years, making his major league debut as the oldest rookie ever at age 42. His autobiography is one of those “as told to” affairs, meaning it was largely dictated by Paige and therefore full of amusing colloquialisms. I’ve been folding the pages down on the best passages, so now I present: “Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever”: The Amusing, Brief, Anecdotal Version.
But those no-hitters don’t make you rich. Not in semi-pro ball. I’d get about a buck a game when enough fans came out so we made some money after paying for expenses. When there wasn’t enough money, they gave me a keg of lemonade.
It seems funny but there were some of the fans who even got mad because I was pitching so good. I won’t forget at one game I was on the bench between innings and I heard this pretty little gal behind me talking to her boy friend. “Pitch and pose, pose and pitch, that’s all he does,” she complained. “It almost makes you mad.”
I was so mad my stomach started crying and I had to belch to ease the miseries.
Even then everybody was saying I was a hundred years more than I was. I guess when you’re long and thin and sit quiet, they think you’re ready for that embalming man.
Lots of baseball men are mighty fine hunters and they got pretty good eyes for skeet, but there wasn’t any of them that could stay up with Ol’ Satch on the skeet ramble.
With those lights, Mr. Wilkinson’s teams could get in an awful lot of baseball. I remember once we played three games in one day. We had a game in the morning and then another one in the afternoon and switched on the lights for a game that same night. I pitched the morning game and won. I was going to rest in the afternoon, but we got into a little trouble and I relieved in about the seventh and pitched the last three innings. We won. That night I pitched the whole ball game and we won again. There ain’t many who can say they won three games in one day. I know some ballplayers that don’t win that many all season.
(About his kids): The next one was in 1951. That was Linda Sue.
I was just as glad to have Linda Sue as I was about the first ones. Little girls are mighty cute things, just like big girls.
“You think you have another year or two left before you quit? that reporter asked.
“Everybody asks me when I’m gonna quit. Well, I’m beginnin’ to ask myself now. People say my arm is made of whale-bone and I’m starting to believe them. But as long as I can fog ’em past those batters, I’ll be in there. You see, I love baseball and I love to pitch.”
We were just talking and Ned asked me what my best relief job was. Now I’ve had a lot of great ones, but that boy was so serious I just couldn’t resist that old temptation.
“That was before I got into pro ball,” I told him. “We was in the ninth and was leadin’, one to nothin’. The first man up topped the ball and beat the throw. The second man bunted and it looked like it was going foul, but it didn’t. Then the third man up walked. Our pitcher had the fourth guy three balls and two strikes and my manager called on me.”
“What happened?” Ned asked, real serious.
“Well, I had a ball with me in the dugout and I just dropped it in my pocket. Then I got the game ball from the pitcher I was relieving. When I went back to the resin bag I got that other ball out of my pocket and had me two of them then.”
“Yeah? What’d you do then?”
“I just threw those two balls at the same time, one to first and one to third. I picked off both runners and my motion was so good the batter fanned. That was three outs.”
Ned wouldn’t talk to me for a whole day after that.