Occidental Avenue technically begins farther north, where the edge of the brick-paved Pioneer Square abuts the diagonal concrete streets of downtown. Up there, Occidental is a beautiful, tree-lined avenue nestled between the bars and restaurants of Seattle’s original center for nightlife, a miniature Arden for the inebriated. That street stops after four blocks and its inverse begins: a dusty, cracked alleyway that sneaks behind First Avenue toward its endpoint, T-Mobile Park. Like everything else in Seattle, the great erasive polishing has begun; the footprint of the football stadium on its east flank stretches down its entire length, sharp and clean and T-shirt gray. But on the west side, the avenue retains its face: weathered salmon-red brick buildings with rusting fire escapes, buildings bearing their own headstones: The Johnson Building, one reads, named after the forgotten dead.
All fans have their cathedrals and this is mine. Not the stadium but this tar-scribbled quarter-mile hike, a lethargic parade of middle-aged couples in visors, scalpers with long faces and sharp eyes, sausage trucks with hand-painted signs. Baseball in person, that semiannual holiday, has always been for me a seven-hour experience: leave work early, find a rare unmetered parking spot in front of a vacant warehouse cargo door. Walk toward the field and then up Occidental, past the vendors as they lay out their popcorn, up to the Triangle Pub. Fifteen years of Félix Days, an era of individual greatness and collective meaninglessness.
The Triangle is a dive bar with no room to dive, a tiny wedge of a building that once served as a brothel, and now serves thin Rainier lager in thinner plastic cups. The music is indecipherable, the walls colorless. There are three televisions, all somehow showing different live Orioles games, and perhaps eight seats inside, five at the bar and three at the rail, with another four stools outside. I take one of those, hold the Rainier to my lips, and lay out my tools, a small notebook and a novel, as I crowdwatch the empty street. This is my pre-game ritual, the single best part of any baseball game: not having to be anywhere else.
The warmth of the alcohol comes quickly — beer is a luxury in my middle age — and I can feel a warm hazy optimism settle upon me, a sense of goodwill toward the world and its inexpressible beauty. It’s a perfect state for writing about Félix Hernández, who once made an entire city drunk.
I rarely earn these moments anymore; the children are old enough to have homework and choir lessons and playdates. Televised baseball is so much more convenient. I am, at the root, too old for this sort of thing, too old to exist out of time. And even then, time finds me: The hour nears seven, the dull distant roar of the crowd makes its lemming-like call, and we among the crowd allow ourselves to be pulled not unwillingly, but also not willingly, toward the gates of the stadium itself.
“No re-entry on exit,” declare the signs on the gate, an ill omen.
He appears on the other end of the field and jog slowly across; we stand in the Pen, the stadium’s standing-room area near center field. He is already wiping at his eyes and he begins his warmup tosses and stretches with Omar Narváez. Even from a distance the usual regal affectations are apparent: the rakish tilt of the cap, the looseness with which he swings his arms, the saunter in his gait. Everything is carefully designed to present carelessness, flourish, like the spots on a poisonous animal. For so many years, his pitches bent and curled with the same elliptical motions; the pitches move straighter, now, but the habits are memorized. That’s just Félix Hernández.
The problem of Félix Hernández requires knowing what Félix Hernández is. Is Félix Hernández his own arm, the blue-black stars running up the back of his right flexor, disappearing into his sleeve? Is Félix Hernández the fingertips that curl around the baseball? Is he the name on the back of the jersey, the only major league uniform he ever wore? Or the statistics, shaped like a changeup in the dirt?
For so many years, you almost didn’t want to know, at first, because it could be even more; who knew how much it could be. We never had to ask the question; it wasn’t necessary to know Félix Hernández because you could just feel it.
Now, sadly, we know for certain. The story of Félix Hernández, his path through the monomyth, is unusual in its brevity but not so much that we can’t find patterns in it. There are times, one imagines, where the hero fights all the way to the final villain and then gets cut down, but they don’t write those stories. Of all his numbers, one dominates his legacy: 33. Félix was supposed to work harder, was supposed to give up on his fastball, was supposed to listen to his coaches, was supposed to understand his own diminishment. We don’t know exactly how he was supposed to do these things, but we knew, we know for certain that he could have; Justin Verlander is right there, after all. But he didn’t.
Perhaps more damning was that he never talked about it, never exposed himself as a person once he ceased being a god. Never one to avoid questions, but also never seemingly comfortable with the medium, the typical Félix interview was a cross between taciturn and stubborn, too stilted to be empty cliche, yet too unobservant to be mystical. “I still believe I’m the best,” was the unilateral reply to his struggles, that concrete foundation beneath the modern athlete, long after it became questionable, and then pitiable. And then something else, beyond that.
I don’t think Félix is lying when he offers those platitudes. I think he truly believes that even now, he will always be more than he is. The problem is that the rest of us, when we hit our mid-thirties, once we have two jobs and two kids and half-dozen subscription media services, stop believing that.
There is never a good time to say goodbye. Once you know it’s the right time, it isn’t anymore. After his penultimate start in Baltimore, a grisly five-inning, five run affair, Hernández said this about what his final start would feel like:
“I mean, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hernández 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 Félix fifty feet in front of us clearly still didn’t know. He waved at the crowd, then put his head down, then looked up and waved again. We answered each time, in our monosyllabic cheer, the only thing we can do to reach him. We have such limited verbs as a crowd.
There was once a time when we read the correspondence of famous people: whole books, often thick ones, devoted to the letters sent back and forth between authors and wives, colleagues, acquaintances. It’s a good thing, I think, that we don’t do this anymore. Those letters often revealed a different person than the one we grew familiar with through their work; sometimes obsequious, often petty towards their equals and even their inferiors. It’s not that we shouldn’t allow these people to be human, and should polish them all into statues; it’s that we already do, inevitably, and the humanity that comes later is always a betrayal.
And we have been betrayed. The real weight to this evening is what we are all owed, what the city of Seattle borrowed against his frightful potential the moment we realized it, the dreams we allowed ourselves to build. He never delivered that satisfying conclusion to his own epic. He never provided that perfect and permanent moment of postseason glory, or even a postseason at all (even a Wild Card game!), as if that were ever solely in his power. Great athletes, like great artists, live in constant debt.
Today we come to celebrate, but also, to write off our loss.
I took my seat in the King’s Court, the designated fan section that for eight years has cheered him on at home, as he took the mound. It seems bizarre that the Oakland Athletics, despite their playoff aspirations, even want to play baseball on a night like this. Can’t they see what’s going on? But it goes on, and from our vantage, as a tiny figure, Félix looks no different than ever. Unlike the baleful microscope of television, distance allows the fans to cling to the narrative: every called ball is the fault of the umpire, every hit that drops in, a misread by the fielder.
Still, it’s impossible to ignore. A 3-1 fastball to Jurickson Profar sails high, forcing Narvaez out of his crouch. Matt Olson lines a flat breaking ball over the middle for a double. A run scores and the bases are loaded in the first, and suddenly we wonder if there is anything left. Each time the count reaches two strikes, the crowd waves its cards and wills its support. Just one strikeout. One moment. One. It’s hard to see the game through the thicket of waving cards. Then, a grounder to short, and everyone sits, relieved.
The struggles continue again. A check swing by Marcus Semien goes around, but the ump misses it and calls ball four, and that proves damaging when Matt Chapman puts one over the center field wall. Suddenly it’s 3-0, and just like the old early days of Félix’s Mariners, a three-run lead seems insurmountable. He needs thirty pitches in the first, another twenty in the second. Time is running out.
But something else is happening as well, something strange and tangible. As we get closer to the end, halving the distance each time like Zeno’s paradox, we get closer to Félix as well. Amazing seasons became amazing games, and now, it’s amazing moments. Félix strikes out Sean Murphy, the backup catcher’s bat missing by a foot, just like the replays of yesteryear played between innings. With each strikeout he turns and points to the court, and the court points back.
Something is weakening, a barrier between the crowd and the field. Most baseball is experienced behind the glass of the television screen, and the rest through pathetic demands for players to toss up foul balls. Despite the occasional collision, baseball exists on a separate plane. But as the game continues it feels as if we are actually real, that we can touch the action. Kyle Seager prompts the crowd to cheer between pitches. When Scott Servais comes out to talk to the pitcher in the fourth, the shared animosity of twenty thousand people seems to drive him back to the dugout.
And then, with two outs and the bases loaded in the fifth, it happens. We and Félix are close to the end now, we can tell. But what defines the moment isn’t a strikeout or (thankfully) a walk, but a sharp line drive to left. To Dylan Moore, a utility infielder faking left field, the most anonymous player on an anonymous team. The play is in front of us, and we hurl our fifteen years of feelings against the now permeable divide between ourselves and the game, willing him into action. It works. Moore gets a great jump, moves back and to his left, and, bending backwards, makes an extraordinary leaping catch for the third out. From the mound, Félix leaps into the air and pumps his fist, every bit as celebratory as if he’d pitched a shutout. He has, a small fraction of one.
They give him one more batter to start the sixth, so that he can have his ovation. The count begins 2-0, and the event horizon is here. We have moments left. Then a swinging strike, a called strike. Then a fly to right, a soft fly to center, Mallex Smith is there, the ball reaches his glove, disappears, and suddenly it’s over. Scott Servais trudges out and Félix, after a beat, thrusts it firmly into his hand. In the end it’s a symbolic start: three runs, 5.1 innings, 106 pitches, and a loss that didn’t matter.
They keep playing the game, although who knows why. A procession of anonymous Mariner relievers duly complete the transaction, and the three runs are, indeed, more than enough. Eventually the Athletics, who have another day ahead and their own story to write, lined up for high fives and disappear into the dugout.
At that point, Félix re-emerges, wearing a King’s Court T-shirt, and walks toward the crowd. As they cheer, he climbs up and passed through the membrane, discarding the last remaining barrier between baseball player and baseball fan. For one moment, he was us and we were him. We cheered, the only way we could pay back what we owed him.
Occidental Avenue is dark, lit only by the glow of the stadium, the fluorescent lights of the bike taxis, and the flashing lights of the traffic cops. All of its age and wear are invisible now; there are only people. Despite the hour, despite the loss, for a moment the old street pulses with life. The smell of marijuana mingles with the discount sausages. Laughter and drunken swearing and idle chatter surround me. It should have been a sad night, and perhaps it is, but the people that walk past me up the alley are loud and happy. It shouldn’t have ended like this. But it didn’t feel wrong. In fact, as far as my story goes, it’s a fine ending.
His, however, will not end here. Félix believes he just needs to get healthy, that he can be what he was. Maybe he’ll sign with the Astros, allow them to remove some mysterious block, and he’ll return to this same temple in April to throw seven innings of one-run ball. Perhaps he’ll spend his spring with the Marlins on an NRI, waiting for it all to come together tomorrow. I hope we don’t find out soon. I like a world where we still don’t know quite what Félix Hernández can be.
Thank you for reading
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