If you're indifferent about baseball, or tired of hearing about Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez's perfect game Wednesday afternoon (Aug. 15), click now to another story. But if you are among those of us to whom baseball is a religion, join in for a few moments.
A perfect game, that is, a game in which no opposition runner gets on base by hit, walk, or error, is a rarity. Only 23 have been pitched in the history of major-league baseball, none previously by a Mariner. For the record, the score was 1-0 over Tampa Bay and Felix struck out 12 on his way into baseball history.
Seeing a perfect game is akin to observing some memorable historic incident; every detail of the day can be remembered.
My fellow baseball nut, Virg Fassio, and I attended Wednesday's game. If you are a real fan, you do not arrive as the game begins. Instead, you arrive an hour or more beforehand, as Virg and I do, and eat a meal at one of Safeco's many concession stands while talking baseball and watching any pre-game onfield activity. Our chosen lunch spot Wednesday was Ivar's on the main concourse. I had a salmon sandwich; Virg had a salmon caesar salad.
It was a perfect baseball day: temperature in the low- to mid-80s, only a light breeze, the sky cloudless. The crowd was slow in arriving, since gametime was 12:40 p.m. rather than the usual 1:10 p.m. for day games. In time it grew to nearly 22,000, a respectable attendance for a midweek, daytime game.
The Rays hit the ball hard in the first inning off King Felix, who had his usual King's Court rooting section, wearing special yellow shirts and sitting in the left-field corner. They held up their usual 'K' signs (K is the scorebook symbol for a strikeout). The very first hitter drove a long fly ball into deep right-center field, where Mariners right fielder Eric Thames, recently acquired from Toronto, ran it down with a fine over-the-shoulder running catch. The ball otherwise would have gone for a double or triple and a perfect game prospect been lost immediately. (There has been talk of shortening Safeco fences next season; the ball that Thames caught was sufficiently deep that, with slightly shortened fences, it might have been a home run.)
As the game went on, Felix became sharper and Tampa Bay hitters ever more helpless at home plate. He was throwing all his several pitches for strikes and, after the first inning, only a couple hitters had real chances to reach base. A fine shortstop play
by Brendan Ryan and, later, a nifty scoop of a throw in the dirt by first baseman Justin Smoak kept the bases clear. The lone Mariners' run would score after Ryan singled, stole second and then reached third on an errant throw, and designated-hitter Jesus Montero scorched a single to left field.
As early as the 5th inning, there was an expectant feeling in the crowd. We could see that something special might be happening. As is baseball custom, Felix sat alone in a corner or the Mariners dugout, undisturbed by teammates, as he waited to take the mound for his next inning. But you could see by his body language, on the mound, that he had the same feeling that the crowd did. He moved deliberately and with purpose. He was undisturbed when Rays manager Joe Madden rushed to home plate to create an artificial fracas with the plate umpire, hoping to break Hernandez's concentration. Beginning with the 8th inning, the crowd was on its feet and cheering every Felix pitch. Felix, in turn, fed off the crowd energy.
When Felix threw strike three to the final 9th-inning Rays hitter, the crowd erupted. Felix threw his arms in the air and looked joyfully toward the stands. His teammates rushed from their defensive positions, the bullpen, and dugout toward the mound. Manager Eric Wedge rushed as well, making sure that Felix would not be injured as his teammates reached to embrace him. They jumped in the air in excitement as they surrounded Felix, just the way Little Leaguers jump in the air after their pitcher puts away a close game.
In a post-game onfield interview, piped to the crowd via the stadium loudspeaker system, Felix was asked how he intended to celebrate. With his friends and family? His family, he said, was on holiday in their native Venezuela and so, he said, "I am alone." But then he pointed to the crowd: "You are my friends and family," he said. The place went nuts.
To those outside the religion, it is difficult to describe the reverence with which we true believers regard baseball. I can recall the exact moment when I first became hooked. At age 7, I joined my mother by our radio to listen to the Dodger-Yankees 1941 World Series. She had been a catcher for a women's baseball team in Canada. It was the game in which Dodger catcher Mickey Owen dropped the infamous "third strike" which cost the Dodgers the Series. The Yankee batter, who would have been the final out of the game, swung at and missed the pitch but Owen let it go to the backstop and the hitter reached base. Given extra life, the Yankees won the game and then the Series.
I thereafter made the Dodgers my team. I followed their box scores in the Bellingham Herald and Sporting News and, later as a graduate student in New York, attended their games at Ebbets Field. Those were the days of Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, PeeWee Reese, Carl Erskine, and a young Sandy Koufax. Asdid thousands of other kids in the Puget Sound area, I listened every night to Seattle Rainiers games broadcast by Leo Lassen. (Those were pre-television days and Lassen painted radio word pictures that were wonderful.)
Both my parents worked, and I spent my summer daytimes from age 9 playing two and three youth-league games daily at Battersby Field in Bellingham. Later, as a college student, I became the public-address announcer for semi-pro Bellingham Bells games played nightly at Battersby. Although I loved the game dearly, I could never play it well enough to make fhe final roster cut for my high-school team. No matter.
My Wednesday seatmate, Virg Fassio, grew up on the eastern seaboard as a comparable baseball nut. Unlike myself, he could really play the game and was starting catcher for University of Pittsburgh teams. Later, running the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he was one of a small group who helped a fledging Mariners franchise build fan support in the Northwest. Until recently, he served as "commissioner" of the RBI Club, a group of true-believing fans who meet monthly at Safeco for luncheons with Mariners players, management, and alumni. Both of us attend Mariners spring training in Peoria, Arizona — I early, he late. I like to watch rookies and mnor-league prospects, which you can do early in training, while Virg prefers to watch the team just before it breaks camp and begins the regular season.
Baseball is a sport, unlike some other sports, where the players also are avid fans. I can recall an Old Timers night which I attended in the 1970s, while visiting San Diego, during which the then current San Diego and St. Louis players took photos of the former players and clustered around them with autograph books.
Wedge, the current Mariners manager, truly loves the game. In his post-perfect-game press briefing he said that "I am a fan too." A few days into Mariners spring training this year, I saw Wedge standing alone, watching several practice fields simultaneously. I walked over and remarked to him that "this is the very best time of the season; everything seems possible." He had no idea who I was, except that I was one more senior citizen from Seattle with time to come to Peoria.
"You know," he said, "you are right. This is the very best time." We chatted briefly about a couple of the young players. I then told him Seattle fans appreciated the good job he was doing. To my surprise, he looked at me earnestly. "Thank you," he said, "it is important for me to hear that."
Wedge is doing a thoroughly professional if sometimes frustrating job with a young Mariners team that may or may not develop into a contender in 2013 or 2014. It helps him, and us, to have a cornerstone star like Felix Hernandez on which to build. Felix, despite his stardom, is a humble leader who leads by example and is loved by his teammates. A good hero and role model for our city.
I saw my first no-hitter in the 1940s when, as a grade-school kid, I watched the Rainiers' Kewpie Dick Barrett mow down the Sacramento Solons in a rainy day game at Sick's Stadium. I still have mental images from that day. I'll retain the images from Wednesday's game for a long time as well.
Leaving Safeco Field, there was joy on the face of everyone. What a way to spend a day, I thought, and what a reward for all the heartbreaks that Mariners fans have endured in recent years. A perfect game on a perfect day. What more could you ask of the world?