SEATTLE — On Monday, back when Felix Hernandez still allowed base runners, a 3-year-old boy and his father watched the ace during a bullpen session. When Hernandez finished throwing, he looked at them, smiled and walked their way.
After greeting the two, Hernandez handed Perry Jones IV his baseball.
“I can’t believe what just happened,” Perry Jones III said to the child. “He is the best pitcher in baseball.”
The star they call King Felix grinned and walked away. It was an appetizer of a moment compared to the awe Hernandez would inspire two days later, but it was as genuinely Felix as a 12-strikeout perfect game.
“It was the most gracious thing,” the father said. “It’s one of those moments in your life when you know something special happened. It was such a genuine thing, and I know that he connected with little Perry.”
It seems like an appropriate story to tell right now because, in our own way, we all feel connected to Hernandez. His perfect game against Tampa Bay, the first in Mariners history, made sports real and joyous again in a city that has suffered too much in athletics, especially since 2008. The feat was sports at its finest, from its unifying quality to its I’ll-remember-where-I-was-when historic importance.
Upon reflection, Hernandez’s perfecto also illuminates the special bond that he has developed with this community and within his clubhouse. He has done so despite not playing for a playoff team during his eight seasons with the Mariners. He has done so despite being the victim of poor run support, which has robbed him of an astonishing number of victories. He has done so with the kind of grace, charisma and humility that the Perrys witnessed on a random Monday as Hernandez prepared to make history.
As remarkable as the perfect game was, have you noticed the perfect reaction?
There’s a rare, universal happiness for Hernandez that goes beyond obligatory respect and appreciation.
It’s almost tear inducing. And Hernandez might be the only Seattle athlete currently who could galvanize this much emotion. He’s popular for all the right reasons.
“He’s one of the most humble stars in the game,” Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan said. “The way he treats everybody, that’s why we’re very proud for him, very happy for him. He’s someone fans can relate to. He’s blue collar. He’s approachable. He looks you in the eye.”
The Mariners wore their affinity for Hernandez in the clubhouse after the game Wednesday. They donned T-shirts that spoofed the Captain Morgan rum logo, complete with a cartoony captain who resembled King Felix standing with one leg on a baseball instead of a barrel of liquor.
“CAPITAN FIFI,” the T-shirts read.
It was a nod to the Venezuelan’s Spanish language, as well as a reference to Hernandez’s alternate nickname — FiFi.
“You’re kind of fighting back tears at the close of the game there,” Ryan said. “He’s the face of our franchise. He’s the CAPITAN!”
Hernandez has been the unofficial face of the franchise since about 2009. But he became the undisputed man last month when longtime star Ichiro was traded. Unlike Ichiro, who just wanted to do his job at an excellent level and leave the rest to others, Hernandez loves the attention and responsibility.
He’s a leader in the clubhouse. He’s serious about wanting to make the Mariners a winner instead of fleeing to a ready-made contender. And he does his job without complaining about what he can’t control.
“I honestly feel like whenever Felix takes the mound, he’s going to throw a no-hitter,” Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders said. “Whenever he gives up his first hit in a game, I say to myself, ‘Well, there goes the no-hitter.’ If anybody deserves this, it’s him.”
During his on-field postgame interview with ROOT Sports’ Jen Mueller on Wednesday, Hernandez said to the crowd, “I’ve been working so hard to throw one, and there it is — for you guys.”
King Felix is royalty. But Capitan FiFi is a star for the people.
It’s a good thing Hernandez can multitask.
On Monday night, Little Perry slept with that baseball. He took it to day care the next day and slept with it again the next night. His father only had one regret: He forgot to ask Hernandez to sign the ball.
On Wednesday, the 64-year-old dentist rode his bicycle from his Ballard office to Safeco Field during the lunch hour to buy an autographed baseball from the team store. No, this story doesn’t end with the perfect coincidence of him sticking around for the perfect game. Even though the game had begun, he rushed back to Ballard after making his purchase. But he still feels the serendipity of being on the edge of history.
“The whole thing was magic,” Perry III said.
Later Wednesday night, the father told his son what Hernandez had done. The boy offered a coy smile.
He already knew the man who gave him the baseball was special.