I was 18 years old and would be headed to the University of Washington come autumn. I had a job working retail at the mall, but my concerns rarely lent themselves to selling shoes or folding t-shirts. I’d rather hang out, watch baseball, listen to music, go to movies, impress the opposite sex, or work out — all of this according to my AOL Instant Messenger profile, of course.
I was still very much a kid back then, one who had never really emerged from the cocoon that seems to envelop the Greater Seattle suburbs. I was naive, goofy, quiet, innocent, and all the things you tend to be before you settle into adulthood.
In that final summer before college commenced, I just wanted to hang out with all the other kids that I’d grown up with. Kids who would move on to different schools in different towns. Kids I might never see again. Kids that I enjoyed being around. I think we knew back then that life would never really be the same for any of us. And for the final few months of our adolescence, it was important that we embrace the memories we had in our past, as well as those we would create over the following weeks.
So it was that on a warm evening in late June, my friend Danny and I found ourselves in the stands at Everett Memorial Stadium, watching as the Mariners’ Single-A affiliate played before a modest crowd of onlookers.
We had no intentions for the evening, other than to watch baseball, enjoy the weather, and kick back for a few hours. Danny and I had been buddies since fourth grade. We’d been to elementary school, middle school, and high school together. His friends were my friends and vice-versa. Our parents knew each other. We’d been in one another’s company for nearly half of our respective lives, but in one month Danny would be headed to USC. It was that inkling we had, knowing things would be changing very shortly, that took us to Everett that night. And so we sat along the third base line and, very simply, watched.
I won’t ever forget what we paid witness to that night. It wasn’t an event, per se, but another kid. He was tall, lanky, had a dark tan, and wore long sleeves in spite of the mild conditions. The program told me he was only 17 years of age — “He’s younger than us!” I recall remarking — and a native of Venezuela.
But it wasn’t who he was, so much as what he was doing, that really caught our attention.
Perched along the stadium’s outfield wall was a rather inconspicuous speed pitch display, free of advertisements, gaudy lighting, or anything you’d find in a big league ballpark. And with each fastball this 17-year-old kid blew past opposing batters, the incandescent display on that electronic board flashed numbers like 95, 94, and 96.
He didn’t pitch more than a few innings, this kid. In his brief appearance, however, he wowed us.
We left the ballpark that night in awe of what we’d seen: a Mariners prospect the same age as most high school juniors mowing down the opposition with relative ease. His name wasn’t important at the time — how often do you consider the names of low-A-ball prospects, anyway? — but his actions were memorable. Only later on would we realize that this teenage phenom we had the fortune of witnessing was, in fact, the esteemed Felix Hernandez.
Nine summers have passed since I first watched Felix throw a baseball. He’s a king now, or so they say. He’s evolved from a skinny, teenaged prodigy into a polished, 26-year-old All-Star. He’s enjoyed the equivalent of seven full seasons in the major leagues. He’s gone from an über-prospect, to a pudgy mainstay, to an American League Cy Young Award winner.
He has only earned paychecks from one organization throughout his entire professional career. And to date, it has been more than a decade — he signed his first pro contract on July 4, 2002 — since Felix became a Mariner.
The Seattle fan base has embraced Felix Hernandez like few other athletes before him. No other ballplayer in this city’s history has absolved himself of criticism the way Felix has. Wrong? Felix can do none of it. We’re known for running our heroes out of town around here. So far, Felix has proven to be the exception to that rule.
As Felix has grown up, so have his supporters.
Looking back on that summer evening I spent gawking at Felix’s youthful greatness-in-the-making, I realize that all my suspicions about life and the mercurial horizon awaiting me were spot-on. Weeks after that get-together, Danny would take off for Southern California and it’d be a few years before we reconnected. Like so many friends bound for distant colleges, we began to head our separate ways. To this day, though, we stay in touch. And not one month ago, when we met up for the first time in two summers (in Las Vegas, of all places), the conversation turned to sports, baseball, the Mariners, and yes, even Felix.
When you’re a diehard sports fan, you tend to recall your past in conjunction with great seasons, great plays, and other feats of athletic glory. For example, I can tell you all about everything that happened to me in 1995, when I was 10, thanks in large part to the memories I’ve held onto from one miracle playoff run. So it should really come as no surprise that the summer of 2003 is still synonymous with that moment I first watched a young Felix Hernandez baffle hapless hitters.
Since then, however, few moments of notoriety have emerged for your typical Seattle sports fan to cling to. While I’m acutely aware that most of this drought is the product of a decade’s worth of losing, part of me wonders if the sobering reality of my own adulthood has jettisoned prospective memories from claiming real estate in my mind.
You see, when you’re a kid, you tend to attach even the most meaningless events to the coattails of the meaningful. One impactful occurrence can trigger a slew of nostalgia for the remainder of your existence.
When you grow up — or age, at least, since I’m fairly convinced I’ll never grow up — those moments become fewer and farther between. You tend to forget what it’s like to joyously celebrate even the most seemingly inconsequential circumstances. Adulthood has its perks, sure. That carefree manifesto you unwittingly lived by when you were younger, though? It’s long since decomposed.
But then there are days like Wednesday, August 15th, 2012. Days that serve as reminders of foolish, unadulterated bliss. That interrupt the trials and tribulations of the everyday to cathartically grant you a lasting reverie that will attach itself to this very point in your life and never let go.
Felix Hernandez was 17 years old the last time he bestowed upon me a lasting reverie. He’s 26 now. I’m 27. We have never met each other, not once, yet have grown up together in the same city, in completely different environments.
I’ve lived in and around Seattle my whole life. By comparison, Felix may as well be a world traveler. In all my years residing here, there are only a handful of times that the Mariners — Felix’s Mariners — have made me tremendously happy. In 1995, it happened. In 2001, it happened. And on Wednesday, it happened once again.
Felix Hernandez went out and threw a perfect game. It was the 23rd perfect game in the history of Major League Baseball. It was, without a doubt, one of the greatest pitching performances the world has ever seen.
More importantly, for me, for you, for us, it was a memory that can never be taken away. Regardless of our ages, our places in this world, our pasts, our presents, or our futures, this is something we will never forget.
With each pitch, we held our breath. With each out, our hearts leapt. And when that final strike zoomed across the zone, as home plate umpire Rob Drake made the decisive call on a game that would go down in history, as Felix Hernandez looked to the sky and let out every ounce of emotion he’d contained for nearly two-and-a-half hours, and as every man clothed in the Mariners’ home whites made a beeline for the pitcher’s mound, we smiled. Or cheered. Or laughed. Or cried. Or shrieked, screamed, yelled, gasped, squealed, you name it.
We rejoiced. Because on this particular day, Felix Hernandez gave us a reason to.
We will never forget this.
I will never forget this.
From an eternal Seattle sports fan, to an eternal Seattle sports icon, thank you. Thank you, Felix. You did great.