Game 159, A’s at Mariners – Good Bye, Felix

marc w · September 26, 2019 at 5:12 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

King Felix vs. Sean Manaea, 7:10pm

Happy Felix Day. I’ve written that a hell of a lot over the past 9-10 years, and this is the last time I’ll get to do that. Happy Felix Day. There’s something kind of magical about it, it’s child-like simplicity, its naive hopefulness. So much of being a sports fan is complicated, and let me tell you, those complications do not go away when you’re a fan of a team that seems stuck in neutral for 18 years. But that’s what was so great about it. Forget all of the complicating factors, forget billionaire owners, forget “club control”, forget the churn of attrition and arm injuries and general failure that baseball brings. Hell, forget about the team’s record, and forget about their place in baseball’s landscape. Go back to basics: the guy in our colors throws the ball past the guy on the other team, and we all cheer. Like many of us, he’ll cheer on the Seahawks. Like us, he couldn’t seem to imagine trying to recreate this somewhere else, or with some other pitcher. We stick with our guy, and every fifth day, cheering for the M’s is the easiest thing to do in the world.

It was never that simple, and I think we all understand that intellectually. Sports aren’t generally where you turn if you’re trying to get intellectual, but I think we all knew that Felix wasn’t perfect, and that he didn’t conjure lollipops and rainbows from the sky. I’m not sure he was the best pitcher ever to suit up for Seattle, but he was – by far – the easiest to root for. And to be honest, that’s probably made real criticism of him harder to stomach, as fans rush to shield him from judgment. I’m guilty of this. That’s why I liked reading Ryan Divish’s retrospective on Felix in the Times – it was kind of like eating a bunch of kale or something. At this point, the arguments aren’t exactly new, but it’s helpful to read through the back and forth of the team trying to convince their star that something was wrong, and Felix thinking that he could do it alone, because that’s what had worked up until 2016-17 or so. I’m not here to convince you that Felix is blameless. I would like to say that the personality that made Felix a superstar at age 19 may have gotten in the way of his ability to be a superstar at age 35. That’s a part of the legacy, maybe.

Something sticks out, though. Divish wrote of Felix that, “He loathed losing more than he enjoyed winning — and he really enjoyed winning.” If that’s true, then why didn’t he reach out sooner, when the losing became all too common? I’ve written here a lot about how much Felix has evolved over time, and how he was more effective at 93 on his fastball than he’d been at 97-98. But when nothing worked, why didn’t he look for help? It seems like he sized up the people asking him to change, and thought that they didn’t know enough to help him. We’ll never know, but…he may have been right.

This blog is inextricably tied to Felix. In its first year of existence, long before I ever got here as a writer, it gave Felix his nickname, as Divish’s story notes: “The U.S.S. Mariner, a must-read blog for the advanced-thinking fan, first used it July 17, 2003: ‘All hail King Felix. Hernandez worked five innings last night against Spokane, allowing just one run on two hits and striking out five. He also walked four, but it’s important to remember that he’s only 17 and facing much older competition, including some college players. I’m trying not to get too excited about him, but it’s difficult not to with the way he’s pitched so far.'” That name stuck, and all of us in the burgeoning M’s blogosphere knew him by that name long before he debuted in 2005. Beyond the nickname, though, this blog and Felix are forever linked by an open letter.

In June of 2007, Dave Cameron and Jeff Sullivan had grown weary of the King looking a bit less than regal. After his breathtaking half-year in 2005, Felix settled in as a perfectly fine, above average, starter for some so-so M’s teams. He had a decent FIP, but he posted an ERA of 4.52 in 2006, and then scuffled after a great first outing or two in 2007. Dave had identified an over-reliance on fastballs early in each game, and wrote to then-pitching coach Rafael Chaves about it. Shockingly (at the time), Chaves not only saw it, but brought it to Felix. Felix made some adjustments, and while he wasn’t appreciably better in 2007, he was better in 2008 before truly settling in as a dominant force in 2009. The letter was framed around Felix’s desire to establish his fastball before his command had reached a level that would allow him to do so without getting hit hard. You, the M’s, needed to intervene and tell him not to trust his velocity alone. I still wonder if it wasn’t Felix who wanted to establish the fastball, though. What if it’d been his team, or his catcher, or just the overall message that he’d imbibed? What would that letter look like to Felix then? I’m still amazed that Chaves did what he did, and I’m glad Felix quickly became less predictable, a few years before the entirety of the game made the same judgment and stopped throwing so many fastballs.

Late in 2007, the M’s signed Venezuelan righty Carlos Silva to a four-year deal to solidify their rotation. 2007 had been an unexpectedly good year, and the M’s needed a veteran presence with Jamie Moyer and Jeff Weaver gone. Silva was the first Venezuelan pitcher Felix had gotten to play with, as his idol, Freddy Garcia, was traded away about a year before Felix made his debut. Silva was no one’s idea of an ace, but had solid seasons in 2007 and 2005 thanks to his control and ground ball tendencies. Immediately upon donning an M’s jersey, he lost it. He managed two injury-plagued seasons here, posing a 6.81 ERA in 183 2/3 IP. To his credit, Felix never followed in Silva’s footsteps of blaming his defenders for errors, moaning about Ichiro!, or instigating fights. But he was right there where his countryman utterly lost it. Trust us, the M’s said to Felix. We can help you.

It continued like that for years, as Felix fashioned himself into the league’s best starter. This isn’t to say none of his coaches helped – I believe that they did. But they came and went, and Felix stayed. Rafael Chaves didn’t make it to 2008, when Mel Stottlemyre sr. took over. After that debacle, Rick Adair became the coach. Carl Willis took over in 2011, and lasted through 2013, when Rick Waits took over. Mel Stottlemyre Jr. took over in 2016, and of course this year, Paul Davis assumed the reins. That’s 7 coaches since the open letter, and that’s three GMs and who knows how many assistant coaches and performance specialists and baseball ops folks. Were each of these people telling him the same thing? They couldn’t have – the problems were different (or non-existent), and philosophies change. When it really came time to make wholesale changes, I worry that there wasn’t enough trust on either side: Felix had learned that coaches came and went, and coaches had learned that Felix didn’t have much time for them.

All of this is to say I can’t quite blame Felix, even as I’m sad at how this is ending. I’m really glad the M’s have opened up an expanded King’s Court, and that we’ll have a chance to send him off while he’s wearing an M’s jersey, unlike with Griffey, A-Rod, Randy Johnson, etc. But this undercurrent of sniping between the M’s front office and Felix has made the end of his M’s tenure sad. He’s been blamed for failing to step up when the M’s needed him in playoff races like 2018’s (for a while) and 2016’s. Those failures were collective ones, of course. And they sit atop years and years of other, equally collective, failures that make Felix the best pitcher not to appear in a playoff game in the divisional era. Those failures mount not because the M’s are uniquely bad (though it’s felt like it at times), but because other teams figured out how to re-shape pitchers and individual pitches and, even MORE importantly, how to communicate that to athletes. The Astros and now the A’s get more out of their pitchers. That’s been true for a couple of years now, and it’s made the gap between them and the M’s quite wide (even in the M’s good 2018 season). I know Felix may have been bull-headed about new ideas, but this cannot have escaped his notice. Houston isn’t calling Justin Verlander out, they’re making him better. I’m at the point where I just want someone to make Felix better, and I don’t care if it isn’t the M’s.

Damn it. There I go again, complicating this by trying to assign blame, or deflect criticism. This is supposed to be simple. Felix is on, and we’ll watch and yell, and hopefully he’ll frustrate the high-flying A’s. They’ll be playing a postseason game again, and good for them or whatever. But Felix is ours, and for one last time, you can’t have him. He’ll be someone else’s soon enough, and then his family will have him. But I’m so thankful I got to watch his career here. It’s been revitalizing, and it’s shaped how I interact with baseball and the Mariners. I watched him in the PCL in 2004, sitting next to the scouts giggling as he broke off that Royal Curve. I remember refreshing my browser on the day of his MLB debut, a game which wasn’t even televised. I remember his first few home games, when it seemed there simply wasn’t a ceiling for his kind of talent. And then I remember his untouchable 2010-2014 run, punctuated by his perfecto in 2012. I started writing here – the place that put the King in King Felix – in 2010. Since then, I’ve yet to write up a playoff game, and I’ve seen a lot more losses than wins. But I got to see that run, and I got to talk about it, analyze it, wish upon it.

Sabermetrics and internet writing about it predates Felix of course, but their growth overlapped so strongly, and I’m just glad I was there for it. Felix was the one-man counter to the idea that saber-inclined writers didn’t care about the players, or couldn’t *feel* what made the game fun. I still write about the game, but I’m 100% positive I’ll never root for a player the way I do for Felix. A big part of that is just age; there are other uberprospects around, but I’m not in my 20s anymore. I don’t have the energy to expend emoting anymore, and to be honest, it takes more and more to summon it even with Felix. It’s here now, though. Thank you, Felix, and good bye.

1: Long, 2B
2: Crawford, SS
3: Lewis, RF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, 1B
6: Narvaez, C
7: Santana, DH
8: Moore, LF
9: Smith, CF

Go M’s. Go Felix.


11 Responses to “Game 159, A’s at Mariners – Good Bye, Felix”

  1. Sportszilla on September 26th, 2019 7:05 pm

    This feels a bit like dying. Thanks for being here with me, at the end of all things.

  2. MKT on September 26th, 2019 8:41 pm

    “Shockingly (at the time), Chaves not only saw it, but brought it to Felix.”

    The story is even better than that, a USSMariner reader said the he literally printed out the letter and handed it to Chaves before a game, pleading that he give it to Felix. And Chaves did exactly that.

  3. Stevemotivateir on September 26th, 2019 8:43 pm

    I remember shortly after moving to Brazil we were treated to his perfect game. That was a surreal moment in a time of chaos (for me) that was a pleasure to witness and share in a special Dave Cameron game-thread right here.

    And here we are in a rebuilding year watching the end of an era. Nothing about this feels right, but at least there will be a sense of peace. No more wasted starts with a BS lineup around him and I do believe the organization is finally on the right track. Sucks that he never experienced the post season, but his sacrifices for Seattle command the utmost respect.

    Props to Dylan Moore for that sensational catch in the 5th. Thanks to Marc for the great write up.

  4. Westside guy on September 26th, 2019 8:48 pm

    Thank you for all the memories, King Felix. It’s been a real treat watching you over these many years.

  5. Grizz on September 26th, 2019 8:52 pm

    All Hail King Felix!

  6. Westside guy on September 26th, 2019 10:08 pm

    I could only listen on the radio, but – I thought the way the game concluded was sadly fitting.

  7. EnglishMariner on September 27th, 2019 12:17 am

    I’ve not posted here in about a decade. But on this day I had to come back. I don’t really follow baseball any more and part of the reason for this is witnessing Felix’s painful decline was too much.

    I woke up this morning and immediately watched the highlights of Felix last start, and it had me sobbing in bed like a baby. I can’t imagine how many tears must have been shed at Safeco (or whatever they now call it).

    Felix is a true legend and also very human, as his send off last night showed. I will miss him immensely and I wish I could thank him personally for how much joy he brought me throughout his playing career.

  8. weasleman42 on September 27th, 2019 4:32 am

    Hail to the King, baby! Out on the east coast, I’ve stopped watching the games. 10 pm EST start times are too late and there is too much losing to invest my time. I still love the M’s, and Felix, and Seattle. It’s just too painful after all these years of not winning… Long live the King!

  9. Stevemotivateir on September 27th, 2019 6:47 am

    ^It’s an 11pm start time for me! But this season has been a lot easier to watch. Knowing this team isn’t maxed out in mediocrity, that it’s going to get better as players like Crawford, Murphy, and some of the late call ups settle in and the meat & potatoes of the farm are getting closer to the show.

    This is the first year I can remember getting excited to follow AA and A+ games online while watching the MLB team.

  10. Zero Gravitas on September 27th, 2019 7:24 am

    I haven’t posted here in a long time, but couldn’t think of a better place to go online and say goodbye to the King.
    Thinking about the old days, I still remember that time Felix got to appear against (I think) Vlad Guerrero in his first Spring Training – and he just had tons of hair, and he was throwing so hard that his hat kept falling off every time he threw a pitch. It was so exciting seeing him after all the hype, and seeing that those pitches were actually real.
    Viva El Rey.

  11. PositivePaul on September 27th, 2019 11:25 am

    Absolutely perfect, my friend!

    I wrote my apology in 2007,

    and again last night on Twitter.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anywhere, too, but last night was so special.

    And, yes, there is still crying in baseball regardless of what some people say…

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.