Felix Hernandez climbed the steps and walked out of the dugout alone, his Seattle Mariners teammates hanging behind for a moment. To thunderous applause, he trotted across the grass, and playfully hopped over the chalk in the basepath, the same as he had the five innings before.
When he reached the mound, Hernandez pointed again to his longtime supporters, the King’s Court — 10,000 strong and four decks high on this Thursday night in September — and then dutifully cycled through his warmup pitches as chants and cheers echoed around T-Mobile Park.
Most of his court, in shirts that read, “Forever the King,” flipped their yellow placards so Hernandez could read the encapsulating word.
Oakland right fielder Robbie Grossman then walked to the plate, becoming likely the final batter Hernandez will ever face in a Mariners uniform. Already beyond 100 pitches, Hernandez fell behind 2-0, before getting Grossman to swing at a slider and watch a sinker pass by for a strike. Grossman swung at the next pitch, sending a fly ball into center field that Mallex Smith corralled with ease.
And so ended the reign of The King, who for 15 seasons — the entirety of his major-league career to this point — provided a beacon of hope for a Mariners franchise that still owns the longest active postseason drought in baseball.
Mariners manager Scott Servais walked out to collect Hernandez with one out in the sixth, and the two spoke for a moment before embracing. Hernandez tearfully went on to hug each of his infielders and catcher Omar Narvaez before wiping his eyes on his sleeve and walking down off the mound for likely the final time.
He removed his cap and gestured again in gratitude toward his court as they and the rest of the 20,921 sprinkled across the ballpark stood at attention and applauded. Before crossing the first baseline, he bowed and rose back up with tears streaming down his face.
More Mariners wrapped their arms around Hernandez as he descended back down the steps into the dugout, and several moments passed before he emerged again, for a final curtain call, raising his arms to a fan base and a city he pledged unwavering loyalty to when he was just a teenager.
“It means a lot,” Hernandez said of his emotional farewell to fans. “This is the first team I got an opportunity to play baseball for, to chase my dream to play in the big leagues. I’ve been here since 2005, and I’ve loved every part of it.”
Signed with Mariners at 16
First scouted by the Mariners at 14, pitching in a tournament in his native Venezuela, Hernandez signed with the club at 16, as soon as was allowed. He spent just 58 starts in the minors across three seasons before his promotion to Seattle late in 2005.
The 15 seasons that followed provided some of the best pitching Seattle has seen, including the franchise’s only perfect game, which Hernandez tossed on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in 2012.
He stayed with the Mariners in 2013, signing a seven-year, $175 million extension, and though his production withered near the end of that stretch, he will be remembered as the beloved, energetic pitcher who gave light to some of Seattle’s darkest seasons.
His playing days in a Mariners uniform will end with his name etched at the top of the record book in most statistical categories, including wins (169) — he passed Jamie Moyer in 2016 — starts (418), innings (2,729 2/3) and strikeouts (2,524) — he passed Randy Johnson in 2016.
“I’ve never played with a pitcher that just dominated so much like he did,” said Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager, Hernandez’s longest-tenured teammate who has been with the club for nine seasons. “I’ve never seen it at any level. ...
“He’s just different. There’s very few guys that are like that, and it was an absolute privilege to get to play behind (him) and have a really good seat to a lot of that stuff.”
Hours before Hernandez threw his first of 106 pitches Thursday, and before he was even in the building, his teammates were scattered across the field taking early batting practice, each wearing their own yellow King’s Court shirt.
Each of them had a shirt draped over the chair in front of their locker in the clubhouse when they arrived for work, and each honored Hernandez by wearing it during pregame warmups.
“We play for each other,” rookie utility player Dylan Moore said after the game. “It’s awesome to be a part of something like that. He goes down in history as one of the best pitchers to ever play, and it’s really cool to be a part of that.”
Emotional in warmups
Some of the court had filled in when Hernandez made his way to the bullpen about 40 minutes before the game. He was visibly emotional as he stretched and played long toss in the outfield. Fans standing in the viewing area behind the bullpen displayed their homemade thank you signs as he warmed up, while others wore the yellow foam crowns sold around the ballpark.
The crowd roared when Seattle’s starting lineup was announced, and when Hernandez walked back to the dugout ahead of the first inning, bumping fists with teammates as he passed.
It was when he finally took the mound that they truly erupted. When he reached the base of the mound, he paused. He looked toward home plate, and emphatically proclaimed this twice.
“My house,” he hollered. “My house.”
It certainly was.
“With the season we’ve had, the struggles there, and kind of the direction we’re going as an organization right now with our ballclub, to have (that many) people come out and support him says (a lot about) the fan base here in Seattle,” Servais said.
The King’s Court faithfully waved their placards each time Hernandez logged two strikes on a batter. They took bites off the signature turkey legs. One young fan even held up a sign that said, “My parents named me after The King.”
“They’ve been there for me … since 2011,” Hernandez said. “It was fun because every five days that I pitched, King’s Court was out there, my teammates were pumped, they wanted to do the best they could do, and that’s fun.”
Hernandez labored through the first two innings, allowing all three of his earned runs, which eventually proved decisive in a 3-1 loss to the A’s, but his final three frames and that one out in the sixth were scoreless.
His three swinging strikeouts of Sean Murphy, Chad Pinder and Seth Brown sent fans into a frenzy, and they went wild again in the fifth when an acrobatic leaping catch by Moore ended a bases-loaded jam without damage.
“It’s been crazy,” Hernandez said. “As soon as they did King’s Court (in 2011), it was unbelievable. It’s the best section in baseball. And today it was rocking. It was popping. It was good.”
Fired up by the catch, Hernandez didn’t return to the dugout but waited for Moore to jog in from left field.
“The crowd’s going crazy, and that ball goes up in the air, and it’s hit a little bit harder than I thought, so the emotion of the game and the adrenaline and everything, it just kind of all came together, and I was able to make the catch,” Moore said.
“It was unbelievable,” Hernandez said, enunciating heavily to make his amazement with the play clear. “I just wanted to go out there and do my job and give the team a chance to win. That was a fun night.”
What Moore will remember the most from this night is how Hernandez, known well for his unfaltering support of his teammates over the years, hailed him for the catch.
“He came straight to me and high-fived,” Moore said. “That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Always ‘The King’
The excitement faded to raw emotion in the sixth, after Hernandez recorded his final out, and Servais approached the mound.
“I said, ‘It’s time.’ I said, ‘I’m proud of you, and how you’ve handled everything.’ And I said, ‘You will always be The King in this town.’ And he will,” Servais said. “There will never be another like Felix here.”
“He wears his emotions on his sleeve, and I think that’s why he’s endeared himself to the fans in the Pacific Northwest the way he has,” Servais added. “Tremendous talent, but he’s not afraid to have fun. He’s always had the ‘it factor,’ is what I like to call it.
“He likes being the center of attention, and certainly had the ability to carry that load here for a long, long time. Real emotional night.”
Hernandez said he thought early on he might sit with the King’s Court when he was pulled from the game but didn’t want to break any rules or get anyone in trouble. He ultimately settled on visiting his supporters, thanking them, and standing among them when the game concluded.
“The relationship with the fans is always nice,” Hernandez said. “They’re nice people. That’s why I call this my home. It’s why I call Safeco Field my house. There’s a lot of emotion going on.”
Though this appears to be his end with Seattle, Hernandez said he doesn’t plan to retire and believes his legacy isn’t completely written just yet.
“There’s more,” he said. “There’s a bit more. I don’t know what’s going to happen next year ... but we’ll see.”
Even with an uncertain future in the majors ahead, he will undoubtedly continue to carry the gratitude of a city that dubbed him its king for nearly two decades.
He loves Seattle. And Seattle will forever love him.