Here we are, in the hoping part. On Wednesday, the Mariners placed Felix Hernandez on the 15-day disabled list. It’s just a 15-day DL stint, in much the same way that it is just his calf and it’s just the beginning of June. Darker, more ominous moments have occurred in pitchers’ seasons. The club has assured fans nervously shifting in their seats that their King will only miss a couple of starts. This isn’t an end. But it is the start of the hoping part.
When we root for individual players, we’re eddied about by hope and confidence. Each feeling colors our understanding of a player in different ways at different times. We hope that prospects pan out. We’re confident that good hitters will find their way out of thorny BABIP patches. We hope new ballparks will revive pitching careers, and that the scars of Tommy John will heal. Of course, doubt and despair inserts itself in from time to time, and decay. Baseball offers little in the way of certitude, but we are able to mask its caprice with moments of confidence, and feel our way between the gaps and through our doubt with hope’s aide. We are confident our time, and their time, will come eventually. And after a spell, we’re confident time will come for them and us, even if our hope helps keep it at bay for a while.
We’ve begun to navigate a new condition for the King. We’re shifting away from confidence and toward hope. Both were always present of course, telling the story of what it meant to root for a star weighed down by a puny offense. The hope that a young looking 19-year-old might mean a change for a franchise. The confidence that he would pitch brilliantly, the confidence the Mariners wouldn’t score, the hope they would anyway. The hope this season would be different; the confidence that surely it wouldn’t be. For a long time, that was what Mariners fans had. That, and the despair brought on by sameness, the doubt it would change, and the slow, creeping decay of fandom.
But this season is different. We’re in the hoping part, only we’re hoping for different things. Gone is the 19-year-old flamethrower. We hope Felix will look Felix-y. We hope he won’t nibble. We hope the fastball will fly, and not over the fence. We hope his magical changeup will make batters look foolish. We hope it will look easy again. We hope the Cy Young winner is still in there. We hope he’s still an ace. But we’re not sure we’re confident. We’ve begun to doubt and look for decay.
It’s baseball’s closest resemblance to life, and the one we resent the most. Every franchise has one, because every franchise is peopled by players who age. We face the crippling anxiety of knowing that we might, as individuals, achieve great things, only to fail to accomplish all that we might want. We are forced to confront the reality that our time may never come, and that even when it does, we may be diminished, halted. We may labor. The cost of each movement may be apparent; the effort may express itself with each flick of the wrist. It may be written into every wind up and tumble out for the world to see with each stretch. We could be one of the best pitchers on the planet for a time, only for that time to not be the one that most people see. The differences may be small. We will still meet the definition of a pitcher, a lawyer, a scientist, a teacher, and maybe even a very good one. But where once we had confidence in the fullness of our arsenal, now we find ourselves relying more and more on hope. We hope to have a few more good years. We hope to reinvent ourselves. We hope Felix finds an extra tick or two, and a bit more command, and we hope the effort of doing so doesn’t cost too much. We hope that if the Mariners finally give him the postseason start he’s so long craved, it’s one we remember for all the reasons we expected we would at the height of his power. That the Mariners window for something good, and Felix’s window for something great, might overlap. We hope to keep the doubt and decay away, for a few years more.
Of course, hopes are sometimes fulfilled. Pitchers adjust, and smart, talented ones do so to sometimes dazzling effect. Felix has dealt with declining velocity for years. The movement on his pitches is still wonderful, the secondary offering sublime. It’s just his calf, and a dinged up cFIP. The hoping part of this new condition is not without reason. Our confidence may not be constant, but we have not despaired. We have our doubts, but have not yet decayed. But we are in a new condition. We’re in the hoping part, at least for a little longer.
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