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Waiting for the Incredible: Felix Hernandez, The Perfect Game, and Aston Villa

Aug 15, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez (34) celebrates the final out of a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-US PRESSWIRE
Aug 15, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez (34) celebrates the final out of a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-US PRESSWIRE

You may have seen that Felix Hernandez, a right-handed pitcher for the Seattle Mariners, pitched a perfect game yesterday. There's also a good change that you didn't see that. This is, after all, a football site with a readership based largely in England, where baseball barely registers. Why, then, am I writing about this here?

Well, as you may know, Aaron, Gareth, Kirsten, and I are all big fans of the Seattle Mariners. So there's already that. But more to the point, I thought the game could be applied as a great lesson for us all in the days before Villa embark on the 2012-13 campaign. You see, the Mariners are not a good baseball team, or at least they haven't been since about 2003. There isn't a system of relegation and promotion in baseball, but if there were - and if, like in the EPL, the bottom three teams got dropped - the Mariners would have been sent down to AAA in 2004, 2008, 2010, and 2011. And it's even more embarrassing to be in the bottom three in baseball, since there are 30 teams rather than 20 (a 10% chance rather than a 15% chance).

All this is to say that the team has been terrible. They've tested the patience of even the most devout fans. Baseball is my unquestioned favorite sport, but the Mariners have been like last year's Aston Villa squad: bad, and lacking in the decency to be bad in an entertaining fashion.

For some reason, though, I've stuck by the team. I buy the (somewhat expensive) package every year, and every April when the season starts I'm convinced that maybe that is the year they win the World Series. It never is, and it never has been. But that's okay. If nothing else, baseball serves as a connection to home and as a way to relax after a long day. I keep contemplating giving up, but I never can bring myself to do it. I don't think I'd be me if the Mariners weren't a part of my life. That looks a bit pathetic now that I see it written, but I really think it's true. The Mariners are as much a part of my identity as my love for music.

And there's been one more thing that won't let me leave: Felix Hernandez. He came up as a fire-throwing 19-year-old who electrified the Pacific Northwest. And ever since then, he's been the best part of being a Mariners fan. Sure, the team sucks, but every 5 days, we get to root for Felix Hernandez. No one else in baseball can have that. Part of the fun has been knowing that eventually he will throw a no-hitter. I'm not sure if there is a football equivalent. Maybe scoring a hat-trick plus two? Being a keeper in a penalty shoot-out and saving five consecutive shots? Really, it's not something you can expect of someone, and yet we all did. Every time Felix started, we all thought "this could be the day."

So yesterday, after I finished watching the NextGen Series, I turned on the Mariners game here at work so I could watch Felix for a few innings. I assumed it would be a typical game, he'd give up a hit here and there, and I'd leave before it was over when I was supposed to go home. But 5 PM rolled around and Felix hadn't given up a hit. He hadn't given up a walk either. He was working on a perfect game. Only 22 of those have been thrown in baseball. They're amazing. I wasn't going to leave work for anything. I had to see this until he let someone on base or until he retired the 27th batter to finish it.

And the whole time, I was pacing around looking like a nervous idiot. My boss walked by and laughed at me jumping up and down and hollering with every strike Felix threw. And when he did finish it, I couldn't stop grinning. I practically floated on my walk home, calling everyone I knew who could even possibly care. I honestly can't remember feeling so good about a sporting event in my life. I remember in 1995 when the Mariners won their first ever playoff series, but I was 9 then. I had only watched for two seasons. Now, I'm 26 and have diligently followed this team for 18 years. This felt more special somehow. The team I loved helped the athlete I enjoy watching more than any other achieve perfection. I will never forget watching that, and it will unquestionably be one of my favorite memories until I die.

But here I am, more than 750 words in, and I haven't given you the promised tie-in to Aston Villa. How does a pitcher in Seattle relate to a soccer team in Birmingham? It all comes down to the feeling of watching the sports we watch. If we all boiled down sports to what they really are, we'd realize how ridiculous it is that we care as much as we do. It's a bunch of overpaid people playing a game, and each and every one of us is more invested than we likely should be. You're here reading this rather than seeing what is happening in actual important news!

That's kind of obscuring the truth, though. Sure, it is a game. And if that's how we think of it, fandom makes no sense. Thankfully, that's not how we think of it. Instead, we watch sports to be entertained. We watch them to be amazed. We watch to see things that we couldn't do. We watch to take a break from the rest of our lives. And we watch them because when they repay our hours of investment, there are very few things more rewarding. To be able to say "I saw that," is one of the best things in the world.

It's funny, too. Even the most frustrating teams and athletes can provide us with these moments. Last year was not easy as Aston Villa fans. They were, pretty much, the Seattle Mariners of the EPL. But we still watched. And even then, we were rewarded. There were brilliant goals. There were some amazing saves. And there were touching moments that transcended the experience on the pitch. Will any of us ever forget the 19th minute applause the day after we found out that Stiliyan Petrov had cancer?

This season looks to be better. Paul Lambert is infinitely more competent than Alex McLeish was, and we've got better players helping to fill out the squad. Furthermore, Aston Villa look like a team poised to succeed in the future. The foundation is being laid.

Regardless of what happens this season, though, keep watching. If the team loses, it will be frustrating. If they win, it will be exhilarating. But sports, more than almost anything else, can bring us together. We've got a community here, which is a small subset of the community of Aston Villa fans at large, which is still a small part of football and sports fans in general. After every match, regardless of result, we want to talk about what happened. We want to connect. And we do it all on the off chance that we'll see something brilliant. Maybe we'll turn into a nearly meaningless mid-August baseball day game and get to see perfection. Or, maybe, we'll see the win that propels Aston Villa to the EPL title.

The season is about to begin, and there are limitless possibilities to what may happen. Thanks for being here and thanks for letting us share this experience with you. We may not make perfect game type memories this season, but we'll be certain to see things that we can't wait to talk about, because that's what always happens in sports.

It is, after all, why we watch.