BY Art Thiel 04:00PM 09/25/2019

Thiel: The great squandering of Felix’s career

The career of Felix Hernandez, spectacular and sad, closes out Thursday, both the Mariners and the man himself contributing to the melancholy.

The final start of Felix Hernandez  is Thursday. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Norrthwest file

In February 2013, when the Mariners announced their massive contract extension for Felix Hernandez, which is coming to its merciful end next week, two developments foreshadowed the move.

After a third consecutive losing season (75 wins, following seasons of 67 and 61), Mariners’ average attendance in 2012 at then-Safeco Field fell to 21,258, still the stadium’s all-time low. Considering that 10 years earlier, the average was 43,710, the Mariners had lost half their in-house audience.

In mid-season that year, the torpor was such that Ichiro requested to get the hell out, and was traded to the New York Yankees. The Mariners gave away their most celebrated player for a couple of relief pitchers, and did it when the Yankees were in town. So Ichiro switched uniforms and lineups in mid-series. All together now: Palms to foreheads.

Shunned by fans and players alike, the Mariners were among MLB’s most unloved teams. So when the seven-year, $175 million extension was struck, here is what I wrote at the time:

If his pending free agency forced a trade of Hernandez, it would represent the bleakest of many episodes of futility when it comes to player personnel. If he stays . . . well, it says they have a chance. Hernandez is like the beautiful starlet who marries the homely guy. We know it’s mostly for the money, but jeez, maybe there’s something more.

I get why ownership did what it did. The beleaguered bosses wanted a big-time player to love them and their business.

At the time, desperation ran so thick that, as the club negotiated with Hernandez’s agent, general manager Jack Zuduriecik also was trying to land in free agency Josh Hamilton, 32 and a recovering addict, offering more than $100 million for four years. Fortunately, the Angels out-dumbed the Mariners on that one. Hamilton got $116 million for the remainder of a career that lasted less than 300 games in Anaheim and Texas.

In keeping Hernandez, at least they were rewarding a home-grown talent they plucked from poverty in Venezuela, who was always grateful and almost never complained.

At the press conference announcing the extension, Hernandez was nearly overcome.

“You see, I am shaking,” he said, pausing for about 20 seconds to compose himself. “To all the people of Seattle who trust me and believe in me — I will not let you down.

“I do this because I love this city and want to be here. I don’t want to go nowhere else. It was a decision I’ve made for a long time.”

Alas, the romance dwindled. Hernandez is no longer a beautiful starlet, and the Mariners are still homely. He got his money, $27 million in this final season, and the Mariners at least will be freed of a heartbreak and a headache. Both sides are privately resentful.

Thursday at T-Mobile Park, Hernandez will start for the final time as a Mariner and, barring a medical/psychological miracle, the last of his career. For the sake of Hernandez and the thousands showing up exclusively to stay goodbye, the hope is that things go as well as possible. There are fine memories.

There was the perfect game. The Cy Young Award. The endearments — his rookie-year inability to keep his hat on, the friendly rivalry with Adrian Beltre, his passionate punch-outs of baffled stars. And how can you not like a macho professional sports star whose nickname is Fifi?

Importantly to fans, unlike Ichiro, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson and others, he never attempted to force his way off the roster.

But in fact, Hernandez did let down the fans.

As his physical prowess began its inevitable decline in 2015, he consistently resisted advice from managers, coaches, trainers, teammates and friends to get in better shape and develop a broader repertoire. His change-up did become a weapon, but his command grew streakier as his trademark fastball faded.

When general manager Jerry Dipoto arrived with his heavy reliance on analytics that had taken over baseball strategy, Hernandez resisted the data. He was convinced he knew better.

As age and information overtook Hernandez, he remained stubborn, unwilling to modify his training and approach to pitching in order to remain effective in a different way.

Then again, the Mariners also let down Hernandez.

When his career was in its apex years from 2009-15 that included six All-Star appearances, the Mariners fielded largely non-competitive teams. The period was known as much for the offense’s failure to get him two runs a game as for his ability to hold foes to two runs.

It produced the dreary legacy that will always linger — in his 15 years, all in Seattle, he never pitched in the postseason.

By itself, the fact of missing playoffs is hardly unusual. Even with the increase in playoff spots, a lot of quality players had the identical misfortune. Then again, the divisional play format meant that each season the until 2011 when the Houston Astros arrived, the Mariners had to be better than just three teams to reach the playoffs, one of which was the raggedy-ass Oakland A’s. The Mariners couldn’t do it.

What Seattle fans ended up with was the franchise and Hernandez combining on opposite ends of his career to create a great squandering.

Upon reflection, it’s probably good in one respect that Dipoto called it quits on the Mariners being competitive in 2019. Imagine the awkwardness if the Mariners were playing meaningful games, as are the A’s this weekend, and needed a big game from Hernandez.

So the no-stakes farewell Thursday isn’t complicated. Just familiar melancholy.


  • Alan Harrison

    A lovely farewell piece. Not a eulogy, but a tribute to, I don’t know, futile bliss?

    • art thiel

      Thanks. I avoided the sentimental wave because it wasn’t an honest feeling for me, considering the arc of his career was wrapped in such futility.

  • jafabian

    It’s amazing the standard that Felix has held during his 15 year career despite playing for 8 different managers during that time, not including a 28 game stint by Robbie Thompson while Eric Wedge was out for health reasons, and multiple pitching coaches. Like Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr before them it’s frustrating to have the best pitcher and position player in Ichiro on the team and not even have a postseason appearance to show for it. I always felt that if the team could have gotten there both players would play amazingly. We’ll never know.

    I remember Felix’s perfect game clearly. I was at work, checked the score on the flatscreen in the employee lounge during my break and saw that he had a perfect game in the fifth inning. So I threw that out on social media and that was the topic of choice for the next hour or so. Everyone knew if Felix had a perfect game by the fifth he’s going for it. Fun having a pitcher like that on your team. Looking forward to him getting a statue outside the ballpark along with Junior, Gar and Ichiro.

    • art thiel

      Nobody has to believe this, but it’s true. I was planning to stay home that day when the thought struck me hard that Felix was going to have a day. So I changed plans, showed up and I’ll be damned.

      • jafabian

        Felix was like Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton or Randy & Junior: if he gets the ball magic can happen at any time. It’s just too bad the M’s didn’t invest in him the way the Seahawks have invested their players and get him the best coach available. Instead he got rookie or retread managers. Looking back a perfect game and a Cy Young award is an amazing accomplishment given the circumstances. And he didn’t nearly have the Gold Glover’s in the field that Randy did.

        • art thiel

          That’s what superstars do — provide a thrill that almost no one else can.

    • WestCoastBias79

      I remember that clearly. A friend texted me in the fourth that something special was happening. First time I had a feeling of joy vis a vis Mariners in probably a decade.

  • WestCoastBias79

    Add his name to the long list of Seattle sports legends who were drafted into a career of team mediocrity. Call it the Cortez Kennedy Hall of Fame.

    • art thiel

      It’s a good comparison because both were so gracious.

  • Kirkland

    Archie Manning might be a good comparison. One of the best quarterbacks of his day, but stuck on a team that didn’t win its first playoff game until decades after he retired.

    • art thiel

      There’s always Ernie Banks. And many others. Felix’s case is our provincial aggravation.

  • coug73

    I wish Felix the best. Perhaps, a playoff quality club will give him a chance to make their team.

    • art thiel

      Nice idea, but that’s not a project anyone would consider, even for free.

  • robert davies

    Very sad about outcome of last nights game but very much expected. All my best to Felix as he has an entire city of great folks that love him. Since giving up my season tickets long ago, on opening day I get out of bed, do the three S’es, get dressed for work and proudly stand at the foot of the bed while my wife sleeps and proclaim loudly, “Wait till next year”. This seems to have become the Mariners battle cry.

    • art thiel

      That is quite the forlorn ritual. Your wife is to be commended for refusing to hurl objects. Unless you’re leaving out details.

  • Husky73

    Those raggedy-ass A’s have won 95+ games again with Bob Melvin managing.

  • Steve Buckholdt

    “Squandering” is the exactly appropriate word. I can think of another s-word that applies to Mariners management, but squandering is certainly appropriate to describe how Felix’s abilities were wasted. Thanks for the well balanced article, Art

  • Howard Wells

    I guess I’m not as cynical. I chose to watch the game remembering the good times of Felix. I gave up on the M’s and this season after 20 games. Friday’s game was strictly for memories, good memories, MY memories. I now return control of your cynicism to you.