Make no bones about it. Felix Hernandez’s crash landing this week was an organizational failure by the Seattle Mariners.
Since 2015, conventional stats and sabermetrics alike have been telling the same story. Hernandez was regressing and no longer a number-one starter. Compounding matters, the once-durable ace landed on the DL in each of the last three seasons, including twice last year.
Despite the clear signs Felix was on the decline, the Mariners continued vigorously marketing the struggling icon as if everything was okay. That is where the organization failed the player and its fan base.
Rather than developing an exit strategy permitting Hernandez to gracefully transition into a supporting role, the Mariners continued propping up his stardom at every opportunity. Most notably, with a rooting section — The King’s Court.
Don’t get me wrong. The King’s Court was a fun and novel concept when Felix was dominating hitters and a perennial Cy Young Award candidate. By this season, it had become a sad reminder of what once was.
Over-hyping Felix when he was clearly past his prime helped send fan expectations to unsustainable levels. In the end, the 32-year-old crashed and burned, while the fan base was left with a collective knot in its gut.
Since moving to the Pacific Northwest nine years ago, I’ve concluded Mariners fans are unlike baseball fans in other big markets. In Seattle, fans yearn to embrace their players; it’s an endearing characteristic of a wonderful region.
This unwavering devotion is one reason why Felix’s decline is so unbearable for many of his followers. Another is the fact he embraced his fans and city back.
With the exception of Edgar Martinez, every Mariner with Hall of Fame credentials left during their prime — Ken Griffey Jr, Alex Rodriguez, and Randy Johnson. Ichiro was slightly past his peak, but he requested a trade and got one.
Regardless of the circumstances, these stars went elsewhere. Not Felix. He signed a long-term extension prior to being free agent eligible. The King loved Seattle and wanted to remain a Mariner. His fans felt the same way about him.
Sure, it was time for the Mariners to pull Hernandez from the rotation. That became evident weeks ago. And yes, the 14-year veteran merits scrutiny over his suspect offseason conditioning regime and preparation between starts. But the team could’ve made Felix’s transition from main attraction to complimentary piece far smoother by simply easing up on the promotions in recent years.
Wouldn’t it have been easier on the psyche of fans if the King’s Court had already faded away rather than continuing to the bitter end? Instead, legions of disappointed Felix fans are left wondering what went wrong.
Perhaps this is just wishful thinking on my part. But, hopefully, there’s another Seattle chapter remaining in the career of Felix Hernandez. One filled with redemption befitting the all-time great Mariner he is.
Then again, doesn’t every King’s tale deserve a happy ending?
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