So where were you when Felix Hernandez threw the first perfect game in the 35-year history of the Seattle Mariners?
I was inside Home Plate. Uh, no, not that one. Of course not that one.
The Home Plate I was inside is a tavern on Main Street in Auburn, where I had gone for the Longacres Mile post-position drawing at Emerald Downs. With a few minutes to kill before catching my Sounder train bound for Tacoma, I walked into Home Plate and was surprised to see baseball on every television set.
A replay of Tuesday night’s Mariners telecast? No, the field was splashed in the mid-afternoon sun. An East Coast game, perhaps? No, because I recognized the guy on the mound to be Felix Hernandez.
After five or six seconds, it occurred to me: The Mariners had been scheduled to play a Wednesday matinee against the Tampa Bay Rays. This was King Felix and this was live, and then broadcaster Dave Sims, bless his jinx-defying heart, caught me up on the story.
“Twenty straight outs for Felix Hernandez!” Sims shouted after there were two down in the Rays’ half of the seventh.
The baseball gods are diabolical in more than the obvious ways. You follow game upon game, for month after month, and then, during that part of the summer when the prevailing theme of the games is an absence of gravity — when you take your eye off the ball, as it were — the gods decide Wed., Aug. 15, 2012 is as good a date as any for the history book.
And make no mistake, Wednesday was historic at Safeco Field, where the Rays became the third team to be held without a hit in 2012. Last time three no-hitters were thrown in the same ballpark during a season? That would be 1917, in St. Louis.
As Hernandez was enhancing Safeco Field’s reputation as Masterpiece Theatre, he put on a show, striking out 12 with a fastball-slider-changeup repertoire that got more wicked as tensions built. The King worked fast, with a steely purposefulness he betrayed only once, after Sean Rodriguez — representing the Rays’ 27th and final out — worked the count to 2-0 by taking a slider that just missed the outside corner.
Hernandez grimaced, but catcher John Jaso didn’t flinch. He put down a sign for another slider. Rodriguez swung and missed. Two called strikes later, the Mariners were celebrating the most dominant performance by a Seattle pitcher since, well, Aug. 5, when Hernandez held the Yankees to a pair of hits during a 1-0, complete-game effort in New York.
At the age of 26, Hernandez is so talented, it’s a wonder that he made 229 previous starts for the Mariners without pitching a no-hitter. But fate can be fickle about these things. Steve Carlton, Whitey Ford, Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens never threw a no- hitter, and yet, in 1953, Bobo Holloman threw a no-hitter in his first big-league start. He retired with a career record of 3-7.
As Holloman proved, a no-hitter can be a fluke. A perfect game can be a fluke, too, but it’s a team-effort fluke. If Mariners right fielder Eric Thames doesn’t track down Sam Fuld’s first-inning line drive launched toward the gap — a tough play, because the ball’s flight began in the sun and ended in the the shade — all bets are off: The perfect game is gone, and the no-hitter is gone.
But Thames made the catch, and his teammates converted 14 other chances into outs, and the legend of Felix Abraham Hernandez entered another dimension.
“I’m lucky to be wearing a Mariners uniform,” shortstop Brendan Ryan told postgame interviewer Jen Mueller. “It was magical.”
It was magical for the 21,889 fans at Safeco Field, and magical for the audience of 10 or so at the Home Plate Tavern. A few patrons were watching in the seventh inning. In the eighth, a Bob Dylan song on the juke box rendered Sims’ voice indistinguishable. But in the ninth, as King Felix was dealing with a vengeance, the suspense was compelling. And when he struck out Rodriguez, the roar was riveting.
Felix Hernandez retired 27 batters in a row Wednesday. A ho-hum afternoon game I’d forgotten about turned into a day I’ll never forget.