Felix

This had to be it. This had to be the year.

I usually don’t put much into all-star games. They seemed to mean so much more in the past than the showboating glamor contests we see today. But it’s hard to deny how cool it is to see one of your guys be a main attraction for such an event. There are some stars who most fans don’t get to see enough of.

This is why I’m more excited for tomorrow’s MLB All-Star Game than I’ve ever been before. And while I’m particularly ecstatic to watch the effortlessly fantastic Robinson Cano, hat-tilting Fernando Rodney, and finally see the homegrown kid Kyle Seager on this stage, there’s something else I’m looking forward to more:

Felix Hernandez, the heart, soul, and face of the Seattle Mariners will take his rightful spot as the starter for the American League for the first time in his career.

My mom texted me saying the infatuation us Seattle fans have with Felix is a little much. But I don’t really think people understand what the King represents to us as a fan base.

For starters, you’ll notice I’m not going to refer once to Felix Hernandez as Hernandez. That’s a writing sin technically, as you’re usually supposed to only refer to someone by their last name after you’ve already stated their full name. But no Seattle fan would ever call him Hernandez or his full name. With the humble and honestly chill vibe he gives off, he’s just Felix to us. (We don’t mind you acknolwedging the royalty by putting King in front though.)

Why is that? It’s simple, really. After you read profiles like the New York Times’ Greg Bishop and the Seattle Times’ Ryan Divish wrote about Felix, you gain an idea of the kind of guy Felix is. He embraces being the face of the Mariners, a franchise that has for too long been among the laughingstocks of baseball. He’s endeared himself to fans by taking pride and responsibility in that. He has believed and currently believes the laughs from around the baseball world will come to an end. And for some of what he’s had to deal with in his career, you’d really have to figure out why.

The King’s throne in Seattle is one that’s been made up of broken bats, and not just those of his opponents. Over the past five years, here’s where Felix has ranked in Run Support Average per start out of pitchers who pitched a minimum of 220 innings, via ESPN: 50th (2009), 89th (2010), 74th (2011), 83rd (2012), 55th (2013). In his career, he’s had 32 starts where he’s pitched at least seven innings while giving up one earned run or less without getting a decision (28 no decisions, 4 losses). This season has been better for him, currently ranking 12th in Run Support Average and getting an exact average of five runs per start, but there have still been six starts this year where he’s pitched seven innings or more while giving up three runs or less that resulted in a no decision or loss. I like to categorize those under Felix Facepalms.

We’ve also never had the pleasure of watching him pitch in the postseason, or even much meaningful baseball. The Mariners haven’t been in the playoffs since 2001 and have only finished with two records over .500 since 2004. Felix started pitching in the bigs in 2005, so he’s been on TWO teams that finished with winning records, FIVE that have lost at least 90 games, and two other 80+ loss seasons as well.

Yet he’s still pitching in Seattle, even after the bundles of trade rumors over the years that had him going to the Yankees at some point. And right now, he’s leading a Seattle team that is currently holding the second wild card spot while he is pitching the best baseball of his career.

You read that right. This Felix is better than 2010 Cy Young Felix. He currently holds career lows in ERA (2.12), FIP (2.04), WHIP (0.901), and BB/9 (1.6) while holding a career high in K/9 (9.6). He has now pitched for seven innings or more while allowing two or less runs for 11 straight starts, the most since Gaylord Perry in 1974. That ERA of his I mentioned is the lowest in Mariners history before the All-Star break, breaking Randy Johnson’s record of 2.20 back in 1997. According to FanGraphs, he’s the leader in WAR amongst pitchers at 5.2, a full win above second place Jon Lester. He’s the clear favorite in the American League to win this year’s Cy Young and if this continues, nobody will gripe about his damn record (currently 11-2).

But this isn’t really the point. Nobody doubts that Felix is really, really good. It’s what he’s representing when he takes the mound tomorrow night.

For ten seasons, he has been the main glimmer of hope for Seattle baseball. You got by during these tormenting seasons by waking up one day, lamenting the Mariners, but then cheering yourself up by saying, “Hey, Felix pitches today!” And you’d either be treated to a masterful pitching performance that ended with a deserved win or one that’s far too often resulted in an undeserving loss that’s just another game in another lowly Seattle season.

Not this year though. This year, there’s legitimate hope. There is actual good baseball being played and meaningful baseball to be had in the second half of the season. For us, having Felix start for the first time for the American League in the 2014 All-Star Game (where Seattle has four representatives, most since 2003) is a symbol of the new Mariners. The playoff-contending Mariners. 

The last time a Mariner pitcher started in this event was back in 1997, when The Big Unit was helping Seattle gain its second ever playoff berth. Felix won’t be sending any warning shots over the heads of batters like Johnson did with Larry Walker, but maybe there’s a different message to be sent.

We’ve seen Felix pitch in the dark shadows of meaninglessness. But now, we get to see what kind of dastardly, changeup-wielding royal monster emerges from those shadows into the bright lights of pennant and wildcard races.

And that royal Seattle monster, our guy, our beloved Felix, gets unleashed tomorrow night in Minnesota for the baseball world to see.

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And you thought Tolkien’s Return of the King was good.

There’s no elves or wizards and this isn’t Middle Earth, but it kind of feels like a fantasy. The most recognizable and powerful athlete in the country willfully chose to leave the tropical enticement of Miami for….Cleveland.

Yes, Cleveland. That city that’s too often been the butt of so many jokes. That city you thought only produced Drew Carey. That city that’s been victim to The Drive, The Shot, and The Decision. On the surface, who would ever choose to spend the rest of their career in Cleveland?

That’s where LeBron James is different. It’s not about the surface.

For James, Northeast Ohio is home. I won’t even try to phrase what James thinks of the area because he already eloquently did it himself with his NBA shape-shifting essay in Sports Illustrated. Deep down within, no matter what glamor he might have experienced in Miami, James knew Ohio was in his heart.

So now he’s back, with a cavalier decision to be a Cavalier again. As for what we’re supposed to make of it, I’ve got a few ideas.

First, any talk accusing James of taking the easy way out in his career to just gain titles can now be silenced. There was nothing wrong with his choice to go to Miami and form a team that would go on to appear in four straight NBA Finals, winning two of them back-to-back. With the amount of pressure on his gargantuan shoulders to even just get one ring, James made the smartest basketball decision he could make by joining the Heat.

His move to Cleveland certainly presents a more challenging scenario than his move to Miami did. There’s a lot of potential and promise with him, Kyrie Irving, and Andrew Wiggins on the roster (maybe even Kevin Love if they can deal for him). But there’s still a good deal of uncertainty. David Blatt, who seems to be well revered in the basketball world for his international work, has never coached an NBA game. It may take some time for him to establish a system and get his players to buy into it to contend for a title.

James will also be expected to mold Irving and Wiggins to try and get them as close as they can be to their maximum potential. That will take time, patience, and willingness to work from the two young guys. If the trio can gel quickly, and get the right role players to contribute, Cleveland certainly has as good as a shot as anybody to conquer a lackluster Eastern Conference.

Secondly, James has fully grown up since he was last a Cavalier. We’ve all been Witnesses to his maturation as a player and man. You can credit his four-year stint with Miami for that, starting with the loss to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals. In that season, The King tried to be more of a Tyrant. He took on a more villainous approach and persona, unrelentingly chasing that elusive ring he so desperately coveted. But it didn’t end as planned, and everyone took their turns laughing at The Big Three for not winning the title in their first year together.

Those laughs didn’t last long. The next two years saw James go back to enjoying basketball again. He shined in a position less system under Erik Spoelstra, fully putting his combination of a brilliant basketball brain and beastly physical stature on display en route to two championships and Finals MVP’s. The three-peat couldn’t happen, as the Spurs picked apart the Heat in the most impressive Finals performance in recent memory. But James did all he could in those Finals (ignoring cramp jokes) and really didn’t get much help.

This brings us to who he is now, and what my final point is. When I read his Sports Illustrated essay, I came away with a notion: you will never, ever, see an athlete give so much insight into how they came to make a choice. He left no questions unanswered and simply just wanted to return to the place he’s always belonged. The revelation confirmed something to me that I’ve come to learn over his career.

When I have a child, I’ll probably tell them Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player of all time. By then, LeBron’s resume will be even better than it is now, and the child may ask me about him in comparison to His Airness, like many who currently compare the two. And I’ll respond simply by saying on the court, MJ holds the advantage.

But off of it? It’s no contest. LeBron James has shown more honesty, maturation, and overall likability than Michael Jordan did in his entire bloodthirsty basketball career. He threw a grudge to the side by meeting and coming to terms with Dan Gilbert, who ripped James with that awful letter a few years back. Michael Jordan couldn’t even get over being cut in high school or lashing out at doubters in his Hall of Fame speech. James has a basketball perspective and knowledge of those around him that I don’t think is matched by anyone in NBA history, Jordan included. To me, that’s as impressive and noteworthy as anything he’s ever done on the court.

So rejoice, Cleveland. The King has returned to his rightful throne to try and deliver your first professional sports title since 1964. Take pride in knowing the Prodigal Son wants to be the one who ended the drought.

And outside of Cleveland, all around the country, take pride in knowing that no matter where you go, what you do, or how much you accomplish, one thing will always be a part of you.

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