Felix Hernandez became the Mariners’ all-time leader in victories Monday night. He’s got 146, a number that prompts a question: How many more victories would the veteran own by now if he were the beneficiary of some offense?
Since his 2005 debut, inadequate run support has been as much a part of The King’s narrative as his quest to participate in the playoffs for the first time. Everybody familiar with Hernandez talks about his history of bad luck except, well, Felix Hernandez, who understands that of all the things he might be, unlucky isn’t one of them.
He’s worked 341 major league games — 2,306 innings — and missed only a handful of starts related to arm trouble. That was in 2007, when he went on the disabled list with a strained right elbow. He missed a few games the following season after spraining his left ankle on a home-plate slide.
This is not the health history of an unlucky pitcher.
Hernandez has earned some $110 million over his career, and is guaranteed $107.4 million more through 2020. And while that’s not as lucrative as the $175 million contract extension the Nationals just gave Stephen Strasburg, $107.4 million works for a 30-year old man who was born and raised in Venezuela, where the minimum wage for a month — $11 — is less than Seattle’s minimum wage for an hour.
Pitchers live to be acknowledged by a home crowd’s standing ovation on those occasions they are replaced by a late-inning reliever. Hernandez gets a standing ovation whenever the count on the batter reaches two strikes.
For that matter, Hernandez’s Safeco Field fan club, The King’s Court, stands up for him the moment he begins his pregame warmup routine. So beloved is Hernandez, his starts are known as Felix Days, as in: “Happy Felix Day!”
And we’re supposed to feel sorry for this healthy, wealthy Seattle sports icon because he’s... unlucky?
Yes, the Mariners have scored two or fewer runs in 91 of Hernandez’s starts, and his record in those starts is 24-67. A timely hit here, a run or two there, and it’s conceivable the 146-game winner is on the cusp of 200.
But he’s not the only pitcher who’s been a victim of lackluster bats. Of the 292 career defeats charged to Nolan Ryan, 200 were in games his team failed to score more than two runs. In games he was provided with at least three runs, Ryan was 281-92.
A 324-game winner overall, Ryan was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999. His 16-minute induction speech found him identifying many coaches, trainers and teammates worthy of gratitude, but 16 minutes doesn’t provide much time to reflect on a 27-year career. In any case, Ryan had the grace not to mention the 200 games he lost when there was no run support.
Nor did he mention that his lone World Series appearance consisted of one game, with the 1969 Mets as a reliever who worked 2 1/3 innings. He was 22 years old, with 24 big-league seasons in front of him, but Ryan never would return to the Fall Classic.
Ryan surely recognized he was more fortunate in that regard than, say, fellow Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, who retired from a 19-year career without playing in a consequential game beyond the middle of September, much less the World Series.
If Banks considered himself unlucky, the pillar of eternal optimism — “let’s play two today!” — did a masterful job of disguising it.
While mourning all those 2-1 and 1-0 games that have deprived Hernandez of 200 victories, consider the star-crossed story of lefty pitcher Herb Score. Named rookie of the year in 1955, when the Cleveland phenom made the cover of Sports Illustrated, he won 20 games the following season and his potential appeared to be off the charts in the spring of 1957.
Then a line drive crushed his face. Although the incident put him in the emergency room and his career on hold — there were fears he’d lose an eye — Score returned in 1958 with his sight intact. But he wasn’t the same, and he never was the same.
Score insisted his issues were steeped in a dead arm, and had nothing to do with the traumatic aftermath of the line drive that nearly killed him. Whatever the source of the struggle, Score embodied the term “unlucky pitcher.”
So did Mark Fidrych, the Tigers rookie who in 1976 took the mound with the flamboyant confidence of a rock star born for the stage. He was sensational, but central to the sensation was a carefree goofiness that delighted America.
When the Tigers convened for spring training in 1977, Fidrych still was goofy. He hopped over a fence, just horsing around, and severely tore his knee. The knee injury brought on mechanical changes that led to other injuries, and by 1979 his career was shot.
Not the type to sulk, Fidrych bought a ten-wheel dump truck and started his post-baseball life as a contractor hauling gravel and asphalt. He was working underneath the truck when his clothes got entangled with the power takeoff shaft that suffocated him.
Fidrych won 29 career games. Felix Hernandez has won 146 and counting. Come Sunday morning, lots of us will wake up with the anticipation of celebrating Happy Felix Day No. 147.
Mariners fans are lucky to have him, and he knows he’s lucky to have them. Everybody wins.
Especially if his teammates score more than two runs.