Voices come at him like memories wherever he is, no matter how bruised and battered rival hitters leave him. Running in the outfield before games at Safeco Field, fans call out. Around his beloved city of Seattle, friends call out.
You're still the King!
"That's what they say," Felix Hernandez says softly one recent morning, smiling at the thought. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, I know that.'"
But he also knows he has not earned a victory since June 30—he quotes the date himself following another recent loss. He knows that clunkers are stacking up like tourists at Pike Place Market, the count now at seven consecutive losses.
Following a pummeling administered by the Texas Rangers on Aug. 7, Mariners manager Scott Servais and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. made about the only move left, demoting the six-time All-Star and 2010 AL Cy Young winner to the bullpen. That embarrassment lasted only a few days before injuries opened an avenue back into the rotation for Hernandez, where the struggle continues.
It is alternately bewildering and heartbreaking.
Since the Mariners' last postseason appearance in 2001, each of the other 29 MLB clubs has played in October.
In Seattle, as these lost summers thudded like filled trash bags in a dumpster, the King almost single-handedly provided baseball nourishment to his adopted city. And every fifth day, the King's Court responded with the kind of electricity—and bright gold T-shirts—that fuels the magic in summer evenings.
As Seattle's best playoff chance in years now fades with the summer's light, not only is the club's one-time ace no longer able to lift the organization, but his repeated failures have helped throw sand in the Mariners' gears.
Still, the commoners continue to call out:
You're still the King!Though the Mariners have yet to reach the playoffs since 2001, Seattle fans have watched Felix Hernandez compile 168 wins and reach six All-Star Games since his debut in 2005.Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
"The people in Seattle have been pretty good," Hernandez says. "I love them. I appreciate them."
It's taken more than fans, teammates and coaches to help prop up Hernandez this season. Following his demotion to the bullpen, he admits he considered taking a leave of absence to clear his mind.
"I was like, 'Should I just take my cleats and go home?'" Hernandez says.
He was so despondent that his wife quickly scheduled a flight from the couple's home in Miami to meet her husband in Houston two days later.
It was over a turkey sandwich (which Felix had ordered) and a plate of ravioli (for his wife, Sandra) during lunch at the team hotel that Hernandez began seeing a path through the darkness.
"Look," Sandra told him that afternoon in Houston. "I know you feel bad. I know you're hurting. But I'm not just your wife. I'm your friend. Talk to me. If you feel bad, talk to me."
He didn't know what to say. Not to her, not to anybody. He had walked into the visiting manager's office in Houston two days after the Rangers' drubbing knowing what was coming but still unable to process it. Servais and Stottlemyre Jr. were sitting there, and the former delivered the news directly and sparingly.
"It seemed like every start, the three or four leading up to that point, there was a lot of expectation, a lot of 'Should he be in the rotation? What's wrong with Felix?'" Servais says. "Sometimes, you just need to pop the balloon, so to speak, just remove the pressure and the air. And let's regroup here."
Hernandez heard the words "we're moving you to the bullpen" and the anger raged. OK, fine, he snapped. Whatever.
Then he wheeled and stormed out.
"Felix," the manager called after him. "Felix, stay here."
Hernandez returned, and they chatted.Hernandez, who is 8-12 with a 5.55 ERA as a starter this season, was moved to the bullpen for the first time in his career, a transition he has struggled to accept.Abbie Parr/Getty Images
"It's not going to be for long," Servais told him. "You're going to play a big part for us in September."
Felix listened. Tried his best to cope. But life is different at 32, especially when it's moved from coronation to humiliation. After winning a Cy Young, firing a perfect game (2012) and spending most of your career as the team's clear star, well, there is no easy adjustment when your fastball slows from 98 mph to 91 and hitters begin making up for lost time.
Teammates have spoken with him. Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano have grabbed his ear. Dee Gordon, new to Seattle this year, offered some private and poignant words that sparked several helpful conversations.
Heck, even old teammates like Joel Pineiro have been concerned enough to check in, and several of Hernandez's friends from the Texas Rangers tried to pick him up as well. Adrian Beltre, a teammate of Hernandez's when Felix broke into the majors in 2005, had a long talk with him.
"I told him he has to find a way to deal with it and get out of it," Beltre says. "He's been in the big leagues more than 12 years, and he's been one of the best every year. Now you don't feel like you're capable of doing what you want to do, and he's finding it hard to deal with."
But it wasn't until he was looking at his wife across the lunch table that the weight of his failures in 2018 began to recede.
"I'm so proud of you," Sandra told her husband that afternoon. "You don't have to worry about anything. You're going to be fine. You're the same Felix. Just do your thing."
"I'm so disappointed in myself," Felix answered.
"You don't have to be disappointed. I'm so proud."
"I've let the team down. I've let the city down."
"You've done great things," Sandra responded. "You need to have fun. Be the leader you've always been. You do a lot of clubhouse pranks. Have fun. You don't have to be serious. Don't change. Be who you are."
As he relays this conversation, Hernandez's voice catches. Tears begin to fill his eyes.Sandra, who has known Felix since they were teenagers, was quick to remind her husband of all he has accomplished with the Mariners when he was told he would be taken out of the starting rotation in August.Photo courtesy of Felix Hernandez
He met Sandra when he was 14 and she was 15 back home in Valencia, Venezuela. They've been together ever since, and today they are parents of daughter Mia (13) and son Jeremy (nine).
"She's a special lady," Hernandez says. "If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have had the career I've had.
"She's big-time special."
By the time Sandra was finished with him, Hernandez had perked up.
"OK, OK," he told her, holding up his hands in mock surrender. "No more, please."
For all the years of practice poured into an elite athlete's career, there is no simulating what happens when the end nears.
There are few graceful exits.
"It's part of Father Time for people who play the game a long time. But I think it can be a beautiful thing as you get older," says Mariners outfielder Denard Span, 34. "Look at basketball. Michael Jordan wasn't the same athlete as he aged, but he developed a fadeaway. You have to do it. As you get older, you develop other intangibles...
"You never know when greatness can come back."
Faced with reality following 2,654 career innings pitched and 10,940 batters faced, Hernandez now is all-in on reinventing himself. Instead of throwing 35 pitches in the bullpen on the second day after a start, he's throwing 10-15 every day off of flat ground. Both Stottlemyre Jr. and Hernandez believe the shorter, highly focused bursts help both his mechanics and his stamina on game day.
Hernandez still has a swing-and-miss curveball and changeup. But while he could seem effortlessly dominant when his fastball was cranking at 98, his curve 89 and his change 78, his diminished velocity no longer separates his fastball enough from his curve. That means he's dangerously vulnerable when he doesn't place his fastball exactly where he wants it, or when he doesn't achieve the required break in his curveball. Twice this year, rival leadoff hitters have ambushed him for a homer on his first pitch of the game: White Sox second baseman Yoan Moncada on April 25 and Padres outfielder Travis Jankowski on Aug. 28.
"That's what they do to me now," he says.
So Stottlemyre Jr. delivers small in-game reminders such as, "Hey, 80 percent on your fastball." Trouble comes when he channels the old Felix and reaches back for extra oomph. That's when his location strays.Channeling the likes of Greg Maddux and Zack Greinke, Hernandez has tried to ease off his velocity and improve his placement on the mound this season.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
"He has to pitch like a [Greg] Maddux or a [Zack] Greinke or a Pedro [Martinez] at the end of his career," Stottlemyre Jr. says.
Seattle has long taken care to coax the most out of the rare talent Hernandez is.
"When he came up, we limited him to 190 innings, including spring training," says Mike Hargrove, Seattle's manager in 2005 when Hernandez debuted at 19. "I told fans and the writers that one night Felix is going to have a two-hit shutout into the sixth and you'll think I'm nuts for taking him out, but it's going to have to happen. You try to take care of guys like that."
At 23, Hernandez led the AL with 19 wins. He won the Cy Young the next year and then led the AL with a 2.14 ERA again in 2014. But the Mariners annually fumbled away his peak seasons, finishing third or fourth in the AL West every summer.
Armchair general managers eventually howled that the Mariners had to kick-start a rebuild by trading their ace for a windfall of prospects. But the club didn't have the stomach to trade away a civic treasure.
"As for 'serious' trade talks, there really never were any," Jack Zduriencik, Seattle's GM from 2008-15 and now a pre- and postgame analyst on Pirates radio, texted to B/R. "When I received calls, I just said we were not trading Felix. Our goal was to add and build around him. Sure, I got calls, but we never exchanged names. So I can say we never came close to any deal. I just never seriously engaged. End of story."
Through it all, the love affair between a city and its ace was unwavering. Hernandez never complained, never wanted to go elsewhere. He signed a seven-year, $175 million extension in February 2013—at that time the richest contract ever awarded to a pitcher.
They celebrated the extension that night—Felix, Sandra, Zduriencik and some of the front office staff—over dinner at celebrity chef John Howie's Seastar Restaurant & Raw Bar.
Now, Seastar's downtown location has closed, and Hernandez's fastball has disappeared along with it.
"I looked at the scoreboard the other night and saw Seattle was down 8-0 and I thought, 'Who's pitching?'" Hargrove says. "Aw, man. Felix."
What Hernandez has done since that lunch in Houston is look forward and appreciate what still is possible, rather than looking backward and dwelling on what was. His smile and infectious personality have returned. And his outings, though nowhere close to vintage, have been reasonable.
When he was summoned in the first inning of that Aug. 14 game against Oakland, it was his first relief appearance following 398 consecutive starts, according to Mariners PR. Only Mike Mussina (498) made more before his first relief appearance.Hernandez has grown so comfortable in the routine he developed as a reliever that he maintains it on days he isn't starting.Mark Cunningham/Getty Images
Though Hernandez returned to the rotation afterward, he's kept the new reliever routine he developed in Houston: He scoots from the dugout to the bullpen in the second inning each day he doesn't start and hangs out with his buddies there.
"Superstition," he says, chuckling. "My starts have been good lately, so I go to the bullpen."
Hey, you can't blame a guy for turning over every single rock in his zeal to recapture his old SoDo mojo.
It may be working, depending on the context. Since returning to the starting rotation, Hernandez has allowed no more than four earned runs in any start and has struck out 20 batters.
The way he figures it, he's healthy now and still has more to do.
"The last two years, I wasn't healthy," he says. "Now, my body feels good."
He added a cutter about a month ago, a new pitch he keeps in his back pocket to break out in case his curve or changeup isn't behaving the way he needs it to on a given day.
"Let's face it, where he is this day and age with his stuff, he has to pitch to contact," Stottlemyre Jr. says. "He has to rely on getting the ball on the ground. He's not always able to wipe guys out like he used to.
"With that being said, it's really important that he gets ahead in good counts, and he's in good counts with his fastball."
The Mariners have pointed out to him that former aces like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain moved to the bullpen at times later in their careers. And when they faced Greinke recently, they noticed he's added a Felix-like changeup that he throws hard and disguises to look like a fastball.
Everything is on the table as Hernandez earnestly works to grab hold of those fleeting moments of greatness and clutch them as long as he can, while at least turning the other moments tolerable.
When he was so down a month ago, even his mother told him, "My heart is broken, because I've never seen you like this." She also had another suggestion, reaching back to his early days with the Mariners when he was bigger.
"You've got to get big again," she told him.
"No, mom," he said.
"You look like a model now."
"It's been a tough year, man," he says. "But you know what? I'm hanging in there. I'm competing. That's all I can do."
As everyone keeps telling him, he's still the King.
Long live the King.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott >on Twitter and talk baseball.
B/R's Danny Knobler contributed to this story.
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