Rumors about who was throwing the ceremonial first pitch — a surprise guest the Mariners tried to keep secret until it happened — began circulating about an hour and a half before the first pitch of Saturday’s third game of the American League Division Series. .
Could it be the King?
Then he was spotted in the elevators before the game and walking down the halls near the clubhouse.
“Felix is here, I just saw him.”
“Elvis is in the building.”
But for the sold-out crowd at T-Mobile Park, already hoarse from booing the Astros and cheering the Mariners during pregame introductions and roaring from Mike McCready’s performance of the national anthem, they were blissfully unaware what was waiting to transpire.
The steady din produced by more than 47,000 fans was cut short as music blasted, a crown appeared on the video board and the words “Return of the King” flashed before a highlight reel of his best moments.
Much of the crowd exploded with joy.
As the doors to the center field gate open, PA announcer Tom Hutyler’s booming baritone announces his presence:
“Fans, all stand up. Welcome, Felix Hernandez!
They were already on their feet when Hernandez walked out of the gate and onto the pitch with a familiar start to Aloe Blacc’s song, “The Man” – his walkout song – filling the stadium but nearly drowning out the celebration.
“Well you can tell everybody
Yeah you can tell everybody
Go ahead and tell everyone
I am the man, I am the man, I am the man”
Hernandez walked slowly up the mound, soaking up an atmosphere he desperately wanted to be a part of as a pitcher, but never got to experience in a past career with the Mariners.
“It’s my house!” he shouted, pointing to the lawn. “It’s my house!”
His face filled with emotion and recognizing his former teammates and fans, he elated in the roars and each wave and point made them stronger. No one could work a crowd in this park like Felix.
His house, his family.
“It was amazing,” he said. “It was good to be home.”
Holding a baseball in his tattooed right hand and wearing the No. 34 white home jersey that fans still proudly wear today, he stood on the mound where he became the best pitcher in the history of the franchise. Now it really felt like home. He thanked the fans and waved at them.
“I was nervous,” he said. “But it was a different kind of nervousness. It was different for me.
But he stepped onto the grass in front of the mound for his first pitch with close friend and former teammate Franklin Gutierrez as catcher. He lobbed a high arc pitch at home as the building erupted. He even turned around and raised both hands, like when celebrating the last pitch of his perfect game in 2012.
“I haven’t thrown a baseball hard in two years,” he said.
With his children, Mia and Jeremy, and his brother, Moises, watching nearby, Hernandez briefly went to the Mariners dugout to interact with the players. Only two — Mitch Haniger and Marco Gonzales — remain in 2019 — his final season in Seattle.
While fans had been pushing for Hernandez or Kyle Seager to show up for the first playoff game at T-Mobile since 2001, there was no certainty that would happen.
Hernandez had distanced himself after his senior year in Seattle, selling his house and living in Miami. He attended a Mariners game this season in Miami, but didn’t tell the team or his teammate he was going. He sat in the stands with friends, avoiding any interaction with the team.
He got a call from the Mariners “a few days before they dropped” asking if he would throw out the first pitch. He told them to ask again after they picked up. President John Stanton himself made the request. Hernandez said yes.
“While leaving the field, Hernandez stopped to shake Stanton’s hand and give him a hug.
“Thanks for coming back,” Stanton said.
“Thank you for asking me,” Hernandez said.
It’s unclear if that means Hernandez will be more visible to the Mariners going forward.
An usher at the elevator said, “Can you put on a uniform and throw again?
Hernandez smiled at that thought. Imagine him pitching at his best in a postseason game – the intensity, the emotion.
When asked if people might see it more, he replied, “We’ll see. I love Seattle.
This story will be updated.