A Farewell to The King

 

frontIn August of 2005, 19-year-old pitching phenom Felix Hernandez made his Major League debut with the Seattle Mariners. The youngest player in the Major Leagues at the time, his teammate on that club was 42-year-old pitcher Jamie Moyer – then the oldest player in the American League.

Moyer played parts of 11 seasons in Seattle, from 1996-2006. Pitching for some of the most explosive offensive teams in Major League history, the consummate “Crafty Lefty” became an unlikely Ace. He passed Hall-of-Famer Randy Johnson in May of 2005 and had extended his franchise record for career victories to 145, when he was unceremoniously traded in 2006 – clearing the way for Hernandez to assume the role as the club’s #1 starter.

The end of the 2019 season marks the end of the “King Felix Era” in Mariners history. Unfortunately, despite his own meteoric rise into one of the most dominant pitchers in the game, Mariners management failed to ever build a competitive team around their superstar. In his 15 seasons with the ballclub, the Mariners finished in last or next-to-last place in their division 10 times. They had five winning seasons but finished as high as 2nd place in the AL West only twice. The closest they came to the playoffs was 2016, when they finished 4 games out of the wildcard race.

Throughout his career with the Mariners, Hernandez was at his best while the rest of the team was at its worst. Not long ago, King Felix was the King of the Quality Start, consistently giving his team a better chance to win games than any other pitcher in the league.

Unfortunately, the anemic Seattle offense managed to score only 2 or fewer runs in a whopping 36% of their Ace’s career starts, easily denying him dozens more wins. His lone Cy Young Award in 2010 was disputed by many for his 13-12 win-loss record, but in nearly HALF (15) of his 34 starts that year, the anemic M’s offense failed to score as many as 3 runs in support of their Ace.

Felix Hernandez started 418 total games for the Mariners in his career. He finished with 169 wins and 136 losses (.554 win%.) In addition to his 2010 Cy Young Award, the 7-time All-Star finished 2nd twice and in the top-10 a total of six times. Had the M’s scored more than 2 runs in 10 of his 2014 starts, chances are he would have won it a second time. He never won 20 games in a season.

Despite Felix’s run of dominance, it took him 341 career starts – 18 more than Moyer’s career total with the team – to surpass him as the M’s franchise leader in wins. Over their careers in Seattle, Hernandez started 29% more games over 4 more seasons than Moyer, but won only 17% more games. His 15 seasons with the Mariners would certainly have earned him closer to 200 career victories – and his Hall of Fame ticket all but punched – with even marginally better run-support.

Instead, it seems like Hernandez may have sold his soul for the keys to his kingdom. By his own account, Hernandez eschewed free agency in 2013 and opted to extend his contract with the Mariners in large part, because he was indeed made to feel every bit the “King of Seattle.”

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As a marketing professional, I can appreciate a good campaign, and throughout their history the Mariners (and their agency Copacino+Fujikado) have done a tremendous job marketing both in-stadium and through the media (Sodo Mojo, Baby!) …but I believe the club’s marketing team may have inadvertently, and adversely changed the trajectory of Felix Hernandez’ career in 2011.

When the first “King’s Court” convened on 5/28/11, fans in the left field corner of T-Mobile Park (nee Safeco Field) were decked-out in old-school Mariners Gold t-shirts and given large placards with a giant letter “K” on the front – the scorekeeper’s symbol for a strikeout. Each time Felix reached a 2-strike count on a batter, the fans would rise to their feet in unison, urging their gladiator-king on to the Kill with a chant of “K! K! K! K! K!…”

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So in the top of the 1st inning on his coronation day, with a 2-2 count on Mark Texeira of the New York Yankees, Felix Hernandez would have looked up from the mound to see his court, dressed in shirts with his image, waving their “K-Cards” overhead…chanting ”K(ILL)! K(ILL)! K(ILL)! K(ILL)!…” Despite – or perhaps because of the jolt of adrenaline from his court’s bloodlust, Felix followed strike-2 with two straight balls, to walk the Yankee slugger.

The King and his Court soon got another chance for a “Kill” with All-Star Robinson Cano leading-off the 2nd inning. Facing his future teammate with his court demanding blood, Hernandez once again followed a 2-2 pitch with ball-3. On the next pitch, Cano crowned the King, taking him deep for a solo home run. A dubious beginning for the K-Card…

“Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls – it’s more democratic.” ~Crash Davis

Between his coaches, mentors, and battery-mates, I have to believe that Hernandez received enough advice throughout his career to make him believe that “pitching to contact” would make him more effective and ultimately extend his career. But I also imagine that if all that good advice took the form of an angel on his left shoulder, King’s Court was the devil on his right, waving a K-Card in one hand and a pitchfork (foam-rubber trident) in the other.

With his team usually out of contention, how could the King not have been trying hard to please his court…and what toll did it take on his right arm?

“I became a good pitcher when I stopped trying to make them miss the ball and started trying to make them hit it.” ~ Sandy Koufax

Eight years and over 1,500 K’s after its first session, the largest King’s Court ever convened on Thursday, September 26th, to pay respect to their monarch one last time. I bought two of the special $15 King’s Court tickets that included a free t-shirt (that is inexplicably free of a sponsor’s logo) and the much-despised (by me) K-Card, now looking like a one-syllable epitaph to King Felix’s career in Seattle.

We didn’t sit in our King’s Court seats however, opting instead to watch the game from the near-empty field-level seats in centerfield, where we had several rows-worth of elbow room and an unobstructed, panoramic view of the ballpark.

Call me a curmudgeon, but I know I mumbled some choice words in disgust as all of the King’s Court and most of the 20,907 fans began their call to arms only 3 pitches into the game…”K! K! K! K! K!…”

The now familiar chant rose-up during each of the first three at-bats as King Felix faced the division-leading Oakland Athletics. After retiring the leadoff hitter on a groundball to shortstop, he walked the #2 batter and gave up an RBI single to put the Mariners in an early hole. Now appearing a shadow of his former self, the beleaguered King labored through the 1st inning on 30 pitches.

Once again in the second inning, Felix worked into 2-strike counts on the first three batters. After a leadoff ground-out, the crowd finally roared their overwhelming approval when the King struck-out A’s rookie catcher Sean Murphy, but quickly reverted to a murmur of worry and doubt when it was followed by his 3rd walk of the game and a Matt Chapman homerun.

With his team down 0-3 and having thrown 53 pitches after the first two innings, I started to feel like at any point, his next pitch of the 3rd inning could be his last. Once again, Hernandez got 2 strikes on the leadoff hitter but the subsequent call for blood went unanswered, as Seth Brown lined out to deep right-centerfield. After a 1-pitch flyball out by Jurickson Profar, The King faced-down A’s designated hitter, Chad Pinder. He followed a first-pitch ball with two called strikes, bringing King’s Court to their feet…”K(ILL)! K(ILL)! K(ILL)! K(ILL)!…”

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When Pinder swung and missed to end the inning, The King immediately whirled around on the mound, facing his Court with both hands thrust triumphantly overhead. I was certain that we just saw his last pitch…but in hindsight, it was silly of me to underestimate the will of a dying king. Felix came back out and worked a 1-2-3 4th inning on 19 pitches.

The 5th inning was a roller-coaster ride, with a walk, error, and a base-hit, along with two hard-hit outs, and one more strikeout. It was a run-saving diving catch by Mariners left-fielder Dylan Moore that brought the home crowd to their feet to close the inning. It was far from one of his “Mega Quality Starts” of his prime, but The King’s 101 pitches through 5 innings put his team in a position to earn him one last win.

After the M’s offense only scratched-out 1 run in the bottom of the 5th inning, the King came back out to start the 6th, and for the 5th time in the game got 2 strikes on the leadoff hitter. With his court pleading for one more Kill, A’s right-fielder Robbie Grossman hit a deep line drive that was snagged on the run for a precarious out.

Instead of one last strikeout, it would go down as one last bullet dodged. Manager Scott Servais followed with the unenviable job of taking the ball from the King. There would be no more K’s. After a minutes-long stoppage in play to acknowledge him, The King returned to the dugout, in-line for one last Loss in a Mariners uniform.

From this lifelong Mariners fan’s perspective, the end of King Felix’s reign in Seattle was sadly apropos. Pitching well enough to earn one last win, instead his teammates once again failed to muster as many as two runs in support of his effort.
Worse yet, Mariners management missed a golden opportunity to engage the most unfortunate fans in Major League Baseball and allow them to show The King just how much this city truly loves him.

With the team closing-out one of its worst seasons ever – and inexplicably for The King Felix Era, the second-worst 15-year stretch in team history – the organization and its sponsors had a chance to fill the stadium and truly send The King off in style. Instead, nearly two-thirds of the ballpark’s 48,000 seats remained empty.
Instead, the organization successfully created the largest King’s Court ever by selling several thousand $15 tickets.

Great. Why not sell ALL the tickets for $15? Or better yet, could T-Mobile and other sponsors have purchased tickets to give away to kids and families who otherwise can’t afford to cheer-on their heroes?

What would King Felix have done with 48,000 hometown fans cheering him on instead of only the 20,000 who could afford it?

As he walked from the dugout to the bullpen for pre-game warm-ups, he acknowledged the small but adoring crowd with tears in his eyes. After the game, he spent a half hour loving and being loved by a few thousand of his remaining loyal subjects. He took selfies, gave hugs, signed autographs, and even got kissed.

ALL of his fans should have been there for this.

When Servais removed him from the game in the 6th inning, the skipper told Felix “You’ll always be The King in Seattle.” As he did, the fans in King’s Court, stood and cheered, flipping their K-Cards over to reveal another single syllable emblazoned across the back: “Thanks.”

After 15 years surrounded by jesters, it seems to me that “Sorry” would have been more fitting than “K…thanks” for the King of Seattle.

Good riddance to the K-Card. Long live The King!

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