By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — Jack Zduriencik stepped onto an elevator full of reporters, and aware of the company he was in, the Mariners general manager put his cell phone to his ear and jokingly shouted, “No, we’re not trading Felix.”
No, the Mariners did not move ace pitcher Felix Hernandez before baseball’s trading deadline, and on an August afternoon that was almost as perfect as the pitching performance, we can all say, thank goodness for that.
Hernandez, the face of a franchise and quite possibly the best thing the Seattle sports scene has going for it these days, added another indelible moment to an already stellar career on Wednesday, throwing the first perfect game in Mariners history in a 1-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.
And when it was over, when Hernandez was done being mobbed by teammates, when he had not one, but two water jugs dumped on him, the Seattle sports star who actually wants to be a Seattle sports star, picked up a microphone to share the moment with the only fans he has known in a career that already includes three All-Star games and a Cy Young award.
Hernandez, who somehow manages to be humble and likeable, while also exuding a ton of confidence, has never been shy about his desire to achieve baseball immortality. Hernandez did that Wednesday while striking out 12 in the 23rd perfect game in major-league history, then he dedicated the moment to a fan base that has pulled so hard for him while suffering through so much losing over the last decade.
“I’ve been working so hard to throw one,” Hernandez told the Safeco Field crowd, which was listed as 21,889, but seemed significantly bigger in the final innings. “And there it is, for you guys.”
For Seattle sports fans, for Mariners fans, and particularly for the rowdy King’s Court section in the left field corner, this was a welcome moment of joy in a year — no, an era — that has produced far too few moments worth celebrating.
And as completely and totally cliche as it is to say, it couldn’t have happened to a better guy. In a city that has witnessed so many of its best athletes leave, Hernandez is one of the few who made the decision to stay. He could have waited for free agency, he could have demanded a trade, but instead Hernandez signed a contract extension in 2010, and every time trade rumors have come up since, he insists that Seattle is his home; where he wants to be now and in the future.
“This is his home, he doesn’t hide that,” said shortstop Brendan Ryan, who scored the game’s only run on a Jesus Montero single. “I don’t mean to say anything about other stars in the game, but he’s just so humble and down to earth, that’s what fans can relate to. He’s approachable and looks you in the eye and all that stuff, and he goes about things the right way. It’s easy to pull for somebody like that. Then for him to be as talented as he is and be our captain, you’re kind of fighting back tears as it came to a close there at the end.”
If any Mariners pitcher had thrown a perfect game, Safeco Field would have been electric. But for it to have been Hernandez, the phenom who signed with the Mariners as an Everett AquaSox player when he was 16, then eventually managed to live up to the “King Felix” nickname that was unfairly hung on him before he reached the major leagues, well this was a special day at the ballpark.
“It was unbelievable,” said left fielder Trayvon Robinson, who for nine innings was the closest player to the raucous King’s Court. “The energy, it was priceless. Priceless, man.”
One of the many things that makes Hernandez’ perfecto so remarkable is that he almost seemed due. Now, it is ridiculous to assume a pitcher is ever going to throw a no-hitter, let alone a perfect game. But Hernandez has been so good, particularly of late — this was his fourth complete-game shutout since June 28 — it seemed inevitable that he would accomplish the feat some day.
Well some day was Wednesday, when Hernandez knew almost from the get-go that he had special stuff, even by his standards.
“When I was warming up in the bullpen, I thought I had pretty good stuff,” he said. “In the third, I was like, ‘There’s something going on right now.’ We threw like five breaking balls in a row and they couldn’t hit them.”
Hernandez was so good, and Rays hitters so hopeless, that in the seventh inning Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon decided to try some stall tactics. Maddon got himself ejected for arguing balls and strikes, then taking his time while having a heated discussion with home plate umpire Rob Drake.
“I’m sure he was (stalling), but Felix overcame it,” said Mariners manager Eric Wedge. “I was just yelling at Joe to just get his ass out of there so he could go back to pitching.”
Hernandez, unfazed, got out of that inning, then struck out five of the final six batters he faced, including Sean Rodriguez on a called third strike to end the game.
And that final pitch to Rodriguez, a 92 mph changeup — yes, you read that right — was the perfect example of how nasty Hernandez was on this afternoon.
“Whatever that pitch is that he throws — that 92, fastball, changeup thing, I’m glad he’s on my team,” said M’s outfielder Eric Thames.
When Hernandez finally took a break from his celebration, he walked into Safeco Field’s interview room, an area usually reserved for big press conferences, not postgame interviews, and deadpanned, “Why are we doing the interview in here? Something big happen?”
In fact, something monumental happened. So often sports, and Seattle teams in particular, can let us down. But for one day, one sun-drenched afternoon, Hernandez reminded us all why we keep coming back.
It was, well, perfect.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.