In February 2013, when the Seattle 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), the 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 Zduriencik 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 changeup 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 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.
The no-stakes farewell Thursday isn’t complicated. Just familiar melancholy.
Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com.