It is Opening Day 2018, and Felix Hernandez is starting for the Seattle Mariners. It’s such a foregone conclusion that it almost goes without saying. Apart from Clayton Kershaw with the Dodgers, this is probably baseball’s easiest opening-day slot to fill in. It is the tenth consecutive Opening Day start that King Felix has made for the Mariners—one of the longest such streaks in baseball history.
And deservedly so: There are few players in today’s game who so fully represent one team. Other great players have come and gone, passed through Seattle and sought greener pastures, looking for World Series rings and higher national profiles. Some have failed with the Mariners, left, and found success somewhere else. It’s a common theme in the team’s history: The good ones almost always go.
But Felix? Felix has given them his entire career, all the way from his 2005 major-league debut at 19 years old, the youngest player to debut in the major leagues in nearly 20 years. Even as the Mariners’ hopes dwindled, as even Ichiro left, Felix stayed, giving his best years to a franchise that often seemed lost. He threw a perfect game in a season where the Mariners won 75 games. He won a Cy Young in a season where they won 61. Year after year, he was the reason to watch the Mariners. And, year after year, he was there on Opening Day, ready to dominate. A reminder of what was possible, of why you were still here.
This is why his tenth consecutive Opening Day start feels so inevitable. Felix has been the Mariners for the past decade. Felix was theirs, and he was great, and somehow, he didn’t leave.
But as much as it felt inevitable, this year was also different than the previous nine. Felix’s Opening Day position was uncertain, less sure than ever before. He spent much of last season injured, prompting an offseason of questions and worry; as if in answer to those questions, in his very first spring start he was hit by a line drive on his pitching arm. He walked off the field, face wracked with pain—all of a sudden, no longer inevitable.
The arm wasn’t broken, fortunately. The fact that this was ever in question, though, is in itself strange. It was not the certainty that customarily surrounds Felix’s status as Opening Day. But Felix himself is not the Felix we have grown accustomed to anymore. Even as the Mariners continue on in their familiar way, beset by injuries and waywardness, unable to cross that elusive postseason threshold, things have changed.
Time is coming for Felix, as it does for every other baseball player. As much as he has been a constant since his career began, consistently throwing over 200 innings, he is getting older. In 2016 Felix lost his Opening Day start—the first time the Mariners had lost on Opening Day in nine years. He only gave up one hit, and he took the loss just the same. Three runs on five walks and two errors. That season he only started 25 games, only threw 153 and one third innings, both numbers the fewest since his debut. He got injured. The velocity was down, the ERA higher. There were more walks, fewer trademark strikeouts.
The hard thing is that the Mariners actually came close in 2016. They finished the season 86-76 and were in wild card contention right up to the last days of the season. The Blue Jays and the Orioles, the teams that made it through to the one-game playoff, were both 89-73. Three, four more wins, and the Mariners would have had a chance. A healthy Felix, the Felix from the year before, from any one of his years of relentless dominance—maybe he would have been the difference.
Instead, it was just another year added to the playoff drought. The playoff drought was young when Felix made his debut, too young to be notable. It’s old enough to drive now. It’s the longest playoff drought in North American pro sports (thank you, Buffalo Bills). And 2017, a season that began with another low-scoring Opening Day loss, was even worse than the year before. Felix pitched fewer than 100 innings, hampered by injury. Time might be running out for Felix Hernandez to pitch in the playoffs with the Mariners.
Back when Felix made the first of these 10 consecutive Opening Day starts, Ichiro hadn’t left the Mariners yet. This year Ichiro is back again, and the Mariners are still hoping to make the playoffs for the first time since 2001. The things that have stayed the same make the differences stand in sharper relief: Ichiro, renowned for his consistency, is 44, injured, not even guaranteed to stick on a major-league roster. And Felix has more question marks surrounding him than ever before. He is no longer the sure All-Star, the unquestionable ace.
But he’s still here. In spite of the injuries, the shoulder problems and the line drive off the forearm, in spite of the passage of time and the franchise’s lack of success. He is still starting for the Mariners on Opening Day, just as he has through all those years when the Mariners were terrible and he was great. He is back for another season, chasing the dream of a playoff run with this team—much like the fans who have endured along with him, and with whom he has shared so much joy. Time might be running out for him, but it hasn’t. Not just yet.
And that’s the promise that Felix Hernandez has represented for the long-suffering Mariners for all these years. It’s the promise that baseball makes to every fan at the start of each season, if only for a tiny moment, before hope surrenders to reality. Before you remember the projections and the playoff odds and your reasonable, analytical, thinking brain takes over. The thought that it’s probably not going to happen—but it might. The stat lines are all zeros; the win-loss records are all blank. You might be witnessing the start of something special.