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Hernandez’s glory overshadows Cabrera’s shame

August 15, 2012

Felix Hernandez has always been a breath of fresh air for his downtrodden Seattle Mariners, but on Wednesday afternoon, he was an infusion of life for a sport that could have used a second wind.

Just as Hernandez was about to toe the rubber for his start against the Tampa Bay Rays, news broke that San Francisco left fielder Melky Cabrera had tested positive for a prohibited substance under MLB’s Drug Prevention and Treatment Program and would immediately begin serving a 50-game suspension.  One of baseball’s breakout stars, Cabrera was in the depths of a career season, leading the league in hits and collecting an All Star Game MVP while charming fans with his good-natured interviews and easy-going play. Though a smattering of players have turned in positive tests since the inception of mandatory screenings in 2006, Cabrera is far-and-away the most high-profile name to emerge from the post-steroid generation.

But Hernandez knew none of that on a sunny afternoon at Safeco Field. Long the lone bright spot for the 55-64 Mariners, who are mired in the middle of their seventh losing season in nine, Hernandez has kept the fanbase close. In his eight seasons with Seattle, King Felix has twirled a 3.19 ERA, made three All Star teams, and redefined what it means to be a Cy Young award winner.  And as he systematically sent the Rays down in order, pitching to contact and keeping plenty in the tank, the ballpark was energized. Melky Cabrera was light years away.

There is nothing more pure than perfection–nothing more lily-white in its time-stands-still kind of masterpiece.  No runners mar the basepaths; no cleats graze home plate.  The 60 feet and six inches between mound and leather become sacred ground and the neat rows of zeroes take on a cherubic cast.  Perfection is baseball at its inarguable best. What happened to Cabrera–what he brought about because of greed or hubris or stupidity–is baseball at its arguable worst.

Hernandez wasn’t that ugly black smear of a positive test. He wasn’t forced statements to the press and tight-lipped admissions. He was baseball on Wednesday, and baseball had risen above.

Sean Rodriguez was already 0-2 when he faced Hernandez in the top of the ninth.  In an ironic twist on a day full of juxtaposition, Rodriguez’s hard-nosed play and valuable grit as a major league asset have only become popular again because of efforts to eliminate performance-enhancing drugs–otherwise known as the last time baseball needed to be saved from itself. But there he was: all hustle and steel and ready to spoil the King’s perfect day.

Instead, it was Rodriguez who blinked. Flummoxed on a 2-2 fastball, he froze, and let baseball’s newest golden boy, on loan from Seattle for just an afternoon, be the inarguable best.

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