On a Tuesday night in August: 39,204, dressed in Oregon Duck yellow. On their feet, waving placards and chanting, as if it were the World Cup. Against the Cleveland Indians, fergawdsakes, losers of 24 of their previous 31 games.
Imagine if the 5-1 victory had meant as much in the standings as it did in the heart.
The coronation/adoration/celebration of King Felix the Splendid was in full sway and swoon, even as he left the mound in the eighth inning. Before he departed, he reached over and tapped Brendan Ryan on the head, signaling to him that the easy grounder the sure-handed shortstop just blew was not a big deal.
Nobody’s perfect, he seemed to be saying. Even though the yellow throng that was rising for another, final ovation may have believed otherwise.
“It was a keep-your-chin-up type thing,” said Ryan. “That’s the kind of guy he is.”
The gesture was symbolic of why these last several days in Mariners baseball were among the best in club history. Yes, the perfect game as part of seven consecutive wins is the metric, but the glow is a reflection of the fact that fans and teammates want good things to happen to Felix Hernandez as much as Felix Hernandez wants good things to happen to fans and teammates.
Call it the Dave Niehaus Experience: Celebrating someone so openly sincere about and grateful for his good fortune that it radiates through buildings and over hills.
Hernandez is so genuine, it nearly hurts. How do you not like a ruthless competitor who is nicknamed “Capitan Fifi” by his teammates?
Asked what the last five days have been like for him, Hernandez shook his head.
“No words,” he said, smiling, a little bewildered. Niehaus would have had a thousand words. But that was his job. Hernandez’s job is to pitch well.
Again Tuesday, he pitched well — again. Over his last 12 starts, Hernandez is 8-0 with a 1.53 ERA.
The fantasy distraction was immediately removed by Cleveland’s first hitter, Jason Kipnis, who singled under the glove of diving first baseman Justin Smoak. Whatever pressure Hernandez may have felt to repeat Wednesday’s majesty was gone.
Before the game, manager Eric Wedge betrayed a little concern that the celebration of Hernandez’s feat — including 34,000 free, yellow T-shirts labeled “King of Perfection” — and its impossible duplication were going to be awkward.
“I’m just looking for him to be poised,” Wedge said. “He rises to certain occasions. There’s lots going on here tonight. I just hope he quiets himself and goes from pitch to pitch; to do nothing more than what we ask any of our starting pitchers — give us a chance to win the ballgame.”
After six other singles and one run in 105 pitches, deed done. Wedge said afterward, “To no one’s surprise, he handled it beautifully.”
As well as he pitched, earlier in the day he also navigated new frontiers of fan affection. Asked by Mitch Levy on his KJR radio show whether he would still be a Mariner after his current contract runs out after the 2014 season, Hernandez said, “You guys will be happy. I’m not going nowhere. Promise.”
While such talk needs to be viewed in the context of the feel-goods vibrating around the Mariners at the moment — after all, by 2014 the club may need several second-tier, 18-year-old prospects — there is nothing in Hernandez’s history or demeanor that suggests he didn’t mean what he said. Because what he also said was, “I think we can win here because we have a lot of young talent going in the right direction.”
Every longtime Mariners fan has a right to hold tightly to his or her cynicism, because it is well-earned, not to be discarded easily. But the fact is that the last 15 games at home have produced 14 wins — the best such stretch in club history — portends hope like the Mariners have not seen in the last several years.
A month ago, it was not obvious to anyone, including Wedge, who was heard to lament about the “Groundhog Day” repetition of mistakes by youngsters threatening to ruin a season that already came with few expectations.
But as happens in baseball more than any other sport, maturity and experience begets success, even within a season. Tuesday, a solo home run by newcomer Eric Thames in the fifth inning broke up a no-hitter by the Indians’ Roberto Hernandez, and was followed with a three-run, 438-foot homer in the seventh by Jesus Montero, typified the late-season growth that is dispatching despair.
The change is not yet a threat to baseball’s world order, only to the approach in the clubhouse.
“We’re starting to get that feeling that Wedge has been talking about the last couple of years,” said Ryan, “where we come to the ballpark expecting to win.”
As the tension of the perfect game began to build Wednesday during the day game, eyewitnesses used social media to alert friends to get to Safeco quickly because it felt like history in the making. The Mariners estimated that about 200 people were late-inning arrivals. Those that could not get away showed up Wednesday.
A week ago, the pre-sale of tickets for the game was about 11,900. So about 28,000 decided they had to salute the king.
“What he did last week was very significant for the franchise, and the fans most importantly,” Wedge said. “In this ballpark, in that setting, was pretty special stuff.”
Then came the encore. At 24-13, the Mariners have the best record in the American League since the All-Star break.
”It was pretty amazing,” Hernandez said. ”This was something special.”
Around the Mariners, things have changed.