SEATTLE – He arrived as a scraggly teenager with an ill-fitting uniform and curly hair billowing out from underneath his often crooked cap.
He’ll leave as one of the finest players to ever put on a Seattle Mariners uniform after a career worthy of the “King Felix” nickname that was bestowed upon him.
Felix Hernandez will make his final start of the season Thursday night when the Mariners host the Oakland Athletics. It’s an important game for the A’s in their quest to earn a wild-card berth in the American League. But what happens with the A’s will be secondary in Seattle to what happens on the mound, with No. 34 likely taking the ball for the Mariners for the final time.
A career that began in 2005 when he was a fresh-faced 19-year-old with all the promise in the world is expected to come to an end, at least as far as Seattle is concerned. Hernandez’s contract with the Mariners expires after the season and both sides seem ready to go their own way.
Whether Hernandez pitches again is unclear.
He wants to.
But after 15 seasons and more time spent on the injured list than on the mound in recent years, there may not be many suitors for a 33-year-old pitcher with decreased velocity and more than 2,700 career innings on his right arm. He is 1-7 in 14 starts this season with a 6.51 ERA. He hasn’t won more than 10 games since 2016, which is also the last time Hernandez had an ERA under four.
“Oh yeah. I don’t want to retire yet,” Hernandez said after his last start in Baltimore. “I think I can go out there and compete against anybody. It was a tough year with my shoulder. But if I get healthy, I can compete.”
Regardless of what happens next, Hernandez will forever be a Mariners icon mentioned in the same breath as Griffey, Ichiro and Edgar. He was arguably the best pitcher in the American League for a large part of his time in Seattle, where he created excitement and helped make the Mariners relevant. He brought them a Cy Young Award and arguably should have won a second. He also delivered a perfect game, one of 23 in baseball history.
At his best, Hernandez was must-see on the mound. He was the face of a franchise that desperately needed one and he cared about Seattle in a way few have. He turned down a chance to go elsewhere – New York, Los Angeles, somewhere bigger and brighter – and instructed his reps to keep him in the Pacific Northwest.
That history is why Thursday night will be emotional, for fans at any rate. Hernandez may be able to deflect the emotions in the moment.
“I mean, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hernandez said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be emotional. I don’t know if I’m going to be quiet. I don’t know if I’m going to be happy. I don’t know.”
The night will start when Aloe Blacc’s “The Man” blares from the stadium speakers as Hernandez walks in from the bullpen.
A sea of yellow-shirted fans in the “King’s Court” will rise in unison and chant as he takes the mound, as he gets to two strikes on any hitter, and will cheer deliriously anytime Hernandez can record a strikeout.
The night will be a farewell, a thank you and an apology all rolled into one.
A Seattle farewell to Hernandez.
A thank you for the Cy Young, the perfect game, the nights when Hernandez demonstrated how much he cared about the organization.
And the apology? That’s for all the games when Hernandez was great and his team wasn’t. For the 35 career no decisions when pitching seven innings and allowing one run or less, and the other painful one-run losses where Hernandez was at his best and may have helped changed the conversation about his place in the hierarchy of pitchers during his prime years. Ultimately, Seattle’s brightest pitching star since the days of Randy Johnson never got the opportunity to pitch on the grandest stage in the postseason.
“I’m not thinking about any of that yet,” Hernandez said. “I know it’s going to hit me at some point, but I’m not thinking about any of that yet.”
AP Sports Writer David Ginsburg contributed to this report.
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