There could be a fourth act. Bartolo Colon is on his sixth, after all. We’ve seen it before: The ace fireballer molts and becomes a cagey veteran, and we all get to appreciate him in a different way. This could be the path that Felix Hernandez takes, now that he’s in the bullpen.
There probably won’t be a fourth act.
This timeline is too familiar. There’s a gradual decline in velocity and overall quality of stuff, and then there’s a canyon. At the bottom of the canyon are alligators with opposable thumbs and dolphin brains, and they’re quicker than they have a right to be. Hernandez fell into that canyon last year and hid in the bushes for as long as he could, but the gators got him. The gators will always win. Baseball is like an old Atari game where the only objective is to stay alive long enough to rack up the highest score, and when you’re out of lives, there isn’t an option to continue. Everyone runs out of lives. It’s built into the game.
Don’t make me embed a video of Nolan Ryan throwing out a first pitch.
We know this instinctively — that one day, Juan Soto will amble out to the mound for a pregame ceremony, fat and old, as Nationals fans stand and scream — but it’s all so very abstract until there’s a moment to pin it on. Like the Mariners deciding that they have five starting pitchers who are better than Hernandez and everyone nodding in agreement. There were times when there weren’t five starting pitchers on the planet who were better, and that’s being extremely generous, and now the Mariners 25-man roster will have five.
With Hernandez, the sunrise-sunset feeling is more acute, if only because he was the embodiment of youth. He was a teenager doing things that teenagers shouldn’t do:
And when you have a teenager making grown-ass men with families look bad, it’s easy to assume it will last forever. For years, the tagline for Lookout Landing was “Felix is ours and you can’t have him.” Even though Jeff Sullivan didn’t realize those are two independent clauses that needed a comma, the sentiment was powerful. This was a reason to watch baseball. This was, maybe, the only reason to watch Mariners baseball, and you know what? It was enough. It was more than enough.
Sullivan also told me once that he wouldn’t trade Hernandez for a single Mariners’ World Series win, and I believe it.
I don’t think winning the World Series is the point.
It really isn’t. The point of baseball is to get excited every fifth day for someone like Hernandez. It’s to get excited before every game because you aren’t sure what (Juan Soto/Mike Trout/Max Scherzer/Matt Chapman/Bartolo Colon) is going to do next. It’s to make every single danged Felix Hernandez start the World Series and react accordingly. Come out with the signs and the props and the shirts and realize that, in this very specific way, the Mariners have it better than just about every baseball fan in the world. Every sports fan in the world.
If you consider all the team sports in the world, ask yourself how many of those teams could claim a talent as precocious and dazzling as Felix was in his prime? Probably some dude who couldn’t even touch the ball in his chosen sport, sure. A basketball player or two at the time, yeah. Football doesn’t lend itself to youth, so they’re eliminated. A cricket player, maybe.
You get the idea. Having someone dominate at the age that Hernandez did, sustainably and without calamitous injuries, is rare in a way that isn’t just baseball-rare. It was sports-rare. And it was going to last forever.
Yet here we are, in the year 2018, where Hernandez is 32 and a net negative on the Mariners’ roster. He’s two days older than Corey Kluber, two years younger than Max Scherzer, both of whom are pitchers carrying the burden of their entire franchises on their right shoulders, but it was the eternal youth of Hernandez that gave out first. If you’re worried about the 1,070 major league innings he threw before turning 25, that’s completely fair. Just know that the decline was coming eventually. It comes for everyone.
This one is just a smidgen crueler than most because of the timing. After years and years of languishing on a team frittering away his best years, Hernandez was finally on a contender again. And he couldn’t contribute. He could only push the Mariners further away from the postseason, just like the Mariners were adept at pushing Hernandez away further away from 200 career wins by scoring -1 runs in all of his starts. The timing wasn’t perfect. It rarely is.
This isn’t the end, necessarily. Oh, buddy, no. There will be a time for a post-mortem, but this isn’t it. Consider that when Fernando Rodney was Hernandez’s age, he had thrown 254 innings in the majors with a 4.25 ERA, which isn’t good for a reliever. Consider that Joe Blanton — who, as a starter, wasn’t even qualified to play Felix Hernandez in a community theater production — eked out two years as a viable late-inning relief option. There could be a fourth act, and it could come in the bullpen, with the velocity playing up and the offspeed stuff being as nasty as we remember it.
But as of right now, for the first time since 2005, for the first time since Yusniesky Betancourt was the shortstop of the future and Adrian Beltre was an underperforming 26-year-old with an uncertain future, the Mariners are better off with Felix Hernandez not starting games for them.
If that doesn’t make you feel something, you haven’t been paying close attention. It’s the right move. It’s an overdue move. But it’s also a move that gets me right in the heart section of my body. Felix Hernandez isn’t going to start games for the Mariners, and we’re supposed to be OK with that?
We’re supposed to be OK with that. It’s the bargain. It’s the bargain that comes for us all eventually.
That doesn’t mean we have to be OK with with that. I hate this with every fiber of my being, and you should too, even if it’s the correct move.