The ballpark won’t seem quite so empty on this particular Thursday night in September, as the Seattle Mariners continue the final stretch of another discouraging season that will end well short of the playoffs.
Fans sporting yellow T-shirts — more than 6,000 of them by the club’s estimate — will line the left side of the field, placards in hand, and roar loudly. Surely more spectators in older versions of that same yellow shirt, which has been distributed to members of the court during nearly every Mariners homestand in the past decade, will be sprinkled around T-Mobile Park.
They will all come together to watch what is presumed to be the final day of The King.
When he walks from the bullpen to the dugout ahead of the first inning, they’ll rise. If he drops two strikes on an Oakland A’s batter, they’ll chant, and if he strikes the batter out, they’ll cheer. And, each time they raise up their yellow placards in unison, they will be delivering a simple message to the pitcher who has spent all 15 years of his career in Seattle — “Thanks.”
Two weeks ago, when he made his most recent home start against the White Sox, Felix Hernandez wasn’t quite ready to talk about what this end to his Mariners career might look like.
“Not yet,” he said following that game. “Not yet. I mean, I can’t wait for my last one. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that. But, I’ll tell you that I’m just going to go out there and compete with anybody.”
Compete. It seems to be the most common word those around Hernandez use to describe how he pitches — whether it was when he debuted as a hard-throwing 19-year-old in 2005, when he threw the only perfect game in Mariners history in 2012, or now, as a 33-year-old veteran with more than 2,700 innings on his arm and an uncertain future in the majors ahead.
“Just the way he competes every time he takes the ball, he truly believes that he is going to absolutely dominate, and we’re going to go out there and win that game,” said third baseman Kyle Seager, who has been with Seattle for nine seasons, and is Hernandez’s longest tenured teammate.
For much of the first decade Hernandez was with the club, he did dominate the majors, and did lift the Mariners to many wins, when wins were hard to come by.
Hernandez was first scouted by the Mariners at 14, pitching in a tournament in his native Venezuela. He signed with the club at 16, as soon as allowed, and spent just 58 starts in the minors across three seasons before his promotion to Seattle late in 2005.
It didn’t take much time for Hernandez to be viewed as an exceptional talent not only by the Mariners, but across baseball.
“In 2005, I was a professional scout,” manager Scott Servais said. “The Mariners were one of the organizations that I covered from the big leagues all the way down through A-ball. I wrote up reports up on all the players. There’s two 80s I ever put out in my career — 80 is the top of the scale in how you grade players out. When you put an 80 on somebody, you’re saying this guys’ got a chance to go to the Hall of Fame. There’s only a few 80s. …
“The first one I ever did was on Ichiro. The first time I saw him I said, ‘This guy is an 80. He does everything right. Off-the-chart tool-wise, hits for average, he’s got power, speed, can defend, can throw.’ What couldn’t he do?
“The other one was Felix Hernandez at 19 years old. Saw Felix in Tacoma. … And (he) blew me away. The command, the breaking ball, everything … at that age.”
Hernandez’s best days as a Mariner came between 2009-15. He was a six-time All-Star during that span, won the Cy Young in 2010 with a majors-leading 2.27 ERA — though he had just a 13-12 record that year in 34 starts that illustrated the lack of run support he dealt with for seasons — and pitched the most recent MLB perfect game on that sunny Wednesday afternoon in 2012.
“The first couple of years that I played with him were something I’d never seen before,” Seager said. “He was dominating the big leagues unlike anybody I’d seen dominate any level.”
The King’s Court, in all its yellow glory, arrived in 2011, and has debuted different shirts each year, with fans still showing up to take bites off the turkey leg, lift their placards in admiration and cheer from that corner in left field, even as Hernandez’s supremacy over major league hitters has faded over time.
His latter years with the Mariners have brought criticisms about why he didn’t adapt — or if he even physically could — when his velocity inevitably declined, and questions about what he could have done differently to maintain the shining career he once had in Seattle.
He hasn’t had a winning record in a season since 2017, or a season ERA below 3.53 since 2014, when he posted his career-best 2.14. He was demoted to the bullpen at one point last season, lost his role as Seattle’s Opening Day starter in March after opening the past 10 seasons for the club, and has dealt with his share of injuries — including the lat and shoulder issues that caused him to miss most of this final season of his contract.
“It’s been frustrating, man,” he said after a rehab appearance with Triple-A Tacoma in August. “It’s been tough on my mind. But, you know what, you’ve got to forget about it.”
Forget about it, go out and pitch, and do what he’s always done — compete.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next year,” he said then. “I’ve got to go out there and show them I still love the fans, and still love Seattle.”
When Hernandez does leave the Mariners, the disappointing, sometimes turbulent years at the end won’t be the lasting memory.
His playing days in a Mariners uniform will end with his name etched at the top of the record book in most statistical categories, including wins (169 ahead of Thursday’s start) — he passed Jamie Moyer in 2016 — losses (135), starts (417), innings (2,724 1/3) and strikeouts (2,521) — he passed Randy Johnson in 2016.
“There’s probably one more pitcher even in the same conversation as him as a Mariner, which would be Randy Johnson,” second baseman Dee Gordon said. “So, that speaks for itself. And Randy’s a Hall of Famer.
“He’s just been amazing here. I had a few times I faced him here (while with Miami), and he was every bit of The King. … He’s been a great teammate, great person to have. I just can’t thank him enough for all of the stuff he’s done for us as a ball club.”
He will be “Forever the King,” as the yellow shirts will read Thursday night. He will be the ace pitcher who guided Seattle through the bulk of the longest playoff drought in major sports — even though he never got to pitch in a postseason game in a Mariners uniform. He will be superstar who stayed in Seattle, after signing that seven-year, $175 million extension in 2013, promising his loyalty to the city when opportunities to join clubs with better postseason track records existed elsewhere.
“He’s always been extremely loyal to Seattle,” Seager said. “If this is it, it will be the end of an incredible chapter, and it’ll be really, really sad for me. … It’s just been such a constant (having him in the clubhouse). You knew exactly what you were going to get. Whether he was feeling good or feeling bad, he was going to take the ball every fifth day.
“For the amount of innings he’s thrown, for the amount of starts he’s made, it’s pretty incredible when you kind of thing back on it. But, just his constant presence, he’s always had such a great energy. He’s always very lively. He’s always the life of the party.”
He will be again once more in Seattle. Hernandez has noted more than once this season he wants to continue pitching past 2019, though it almost certainly won’t be here. But, at least for the innings he pitches Thursday night, he will be surrounded by those who have supported him for more than a decade, and who will assuredly deliver a farewell fit for a King.
“I love that,” Hernandez said. “I always loved that. It’s the best section in baseball.”