As reporters-turned-kids squeezed into the press box elevator on the way to speak to history, the bald guy jammed in late into the giggle-fest.
“So,” I said, “do we credit Jack Zduriencik for not trading Felix Hernandez?”
Not missing a beat, Zduriencik put his cell phone to his ear and shouted to a make-believe general manager, “No! We will not trade Felix!”
As the laughter came and went, it occurred that for the first time in its history, one of baseball’s most forlorn, woebegone franchises dodged the up-turned rake, skipped over the open manhole, hurdled the barbed wire and did a thing the best that it could be done.
They found, nurtured, paid and kept a great baseball player, and he paid them back with perfection.
For a scintillating afternoon, he hung with the immortals. Cy Young. Sandy Koufax. Don Larsen. Randy Johnson. Roy Halladay. He took the Mariners, the 21,889 bloody-lucky ticketholders and the moribund crew of longtime followers on TV and radio with him. You can identify all of them, because the hair is still standing on their necks.
Well done, Mariners. Take a bow, and take a note.
Special people are worth it.
The Mariners won 1-0, but it was really 100-0. The Tampa Bay Rays were so far from hitting him they may as well have been spitting at the moon. Perhaps the unlikeliest aspect of the afternoon was articulated by the man who scored the day’s only run, shortstop Brendan Ryan. He said the Mariners’ typically inept offense actually helped make the day of flawlessness.
“If we’re up 8-0 all the focus is on the perfect game,” he said. “I was stressing (the need) for more runs. You try to dumb it down and not get too caught up in it. You see how good he is, how he and (catcher John Jaso) are on the same page.
“You don’t want to let doubt creep into your head. Your hands get hard and your feet get heavy.”
But Hernandez was so good and the defense so efficient that there wasn’t even a serious threat to perfection. Hernandez reached a three-ball count just three times, and no Tampa batter came seriously close to a hit.
The Rays’ first batter, Sam Fuld, lifted a long fly that left fielder Trayvon Robinson right fielder Eric Thames easily hauled in near the warning track. In the seventh, B.J. Upton hit a grounder that caused third baseman Kyle Seager to lunge to his left. But instead of being deflected or caught, the ball passed through and was played routinely by Ryan, whose hard throw beat Upton easily.
Hernandez was so transcendent, he even amazed himself.
Attempting to compliment the fan support in the post-game presser, he said, “I was great,” to much laughter. But the man speaks the truth. He knew he had it in the pre-game warm-up and he kept getting better as the game progressed, striking out five of the last six batters.
“Today was special,” he said. “We could throw any pitch, any count. Unbelievable.”
That’s what blew away Eric Wedge.
“It was special for me, because it was it was 1-0 game,” he said. “As a manager, you know how fragile it is. He had such confidence in his secondary stuff, whether he threw it for balls or buried it for strikes. On the final batter, he threw a secondary pitch on a 2-0 count. Talk about great deal of confidence . . . ”
Asked to explain what makes Hernandez different, Wedge said, “There are a lot of talented players, but the intangibles are what separates him — leadership, toughness and consistency is what separates him.”
Another theme running through the post-game conversation was genuine excitement for a player they care about.
“He’s one of the most humble stars in the game, the way he treats everybody,” said Ryan. “I’m very proud and happy for him. This is his home. He doesn’t hide that. He’ so down to earth. He’s approachable, looks you in the eye and does things the right way. It’s easy to pull for a guy like that.”
As the jubilance subsided, Hernandez, who was deliberately ignored by teammates in the dugout per baseball custom, disclosed that a bit of sadness. His wife and kids went home for a visit to their native Venezuela last week and missed the excitement.
“I am,” he said, smiling, “all alone.”
Not exactly. Wednesday night there is an entire town here waiting to buy him dinner, a drink, whatever he wants, in exchange for a nod or wink. Sports greatness is not often afforded this burg, and it walks among us for a free evening followed by an off-day Thursday.
Since pennants are few around here, perfection, even for a day, has to be savored, toasted and exulted; our Olympic moment.