Esposito: Death Strikes Baseball Hard

The tragic news that rocked the baseball world early this morning that Marlins star pitcher Jose Fernandez was killed in a boating accident was a shocking dose of reality. We play this game, we watch this game played by professionals, and enjoy this game of baseball to the fullest, enjoy life’s great moments, and its greatest hits, but the game of life sometimes hits back, and hard.

Tears on the keyboard, tears in every clubhouse, and tears in the hearts of every baseball fan across the country today as we extend condolences and deepest sympathies to the Fernandez family, the Miami Marlins, and their fans.

All of baseball took moments to honor his memory before games around the country. The Mets prepared a special team jersey with Fernandez’s number 16 and his name stitched on and taped it to their dugout wall for today’s game against the Phillies.

Remembrances poured in honoring Fernandez from every corner. The young Cuban’s story was well known, the kind Hollywood likes to bring to the silver screen. Fernandez attempted to defect from his native country three times unsuccessfully, ironically via boating escapes, and each failure was tagged with a prison term. His fourth ocean attempt, in 2007, along with his mother and sister, was successful, but along the way, he had to dive into the Atlantic to save his mother from drowning, who had fallen overboard.

The teenager and his family found their way to Tampa, Florida, where they stayed with Fernandez’s stepfather. His baseball skills were quickly evident, and he was drafted by the Marlins in the first round of the 2011 Amateur Draft (14th selection overall).

Mets fans think of Fernandez every time Brandon Nimmo takes the field or grabs a bat for New York. Why? Fernandez was still on the board at the 2011 draft when the Mets selected Nimmo with their first round pick, the 13th selection overall. Nimmo looks like he’s going to be a pretty good player, but hey, you know…

Fernandez made his major league debut in April, 2013, and went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award with a 12-6 mark in 28 starts (2.19 ERA) and was third in the CY Young voting. You could fill a lot of memory with the rest of his baseball accomplishments in just a few years, but what everyone recalled with his passing was his passion for life, his congenial nature, his charitable efforts, and what he meant to the city of Miami and their extensive Cuban population.

He was everything to them, a true hero for his personal story, and what he meant as they each struggle in their efforts to become new Americans. All of which struck harder with the tragic news of this terrible boating accident, with details just emerging.

Sadly, the baseball world has been torn with similar news many, many times before.

The list of ballplayers who have died either during a season or under tragic circumstances in the offseason is regrettably lengthy. Way too many to list here, as plane crashes, car accidents, heart attacks, even murders, have made baseball headlines far too frequently.

The most parallel incident to Fernandez’s tragic demise which comes to mind occurred in 1993, when Cleveland Indians pitchers Tim Crews and Steve Olin were killed in a boating accident during spring training in Florida. Former Mets hurler Bobby Ojeda also was in the boat and seriously injured, but he recovered well enough to rejoin the Indians for nine games later that year.

The Yankees family has been grief stricken at least twice by plane crashes. First, when their All-Star catcher Thurman Munson died piloting his small aircraft on an off day in 1979. Just one decade ago, in 2006, ex-Met Cory Lidle was a pitcher for the Yankees when he crashed his small plane into a building in Manhattan and perished.

Of course, the most legendary Yankee to die tragically was Lou Gehrig, who was forced to retire in 1939 from the deteriorating effects of ALS, later known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Gehrig died in the summer of 1941, coincidentally in the midst of Joe DiMaggio’s famous 56-game hit streak.

The Mets organization has endured tragic losses as well. The one which affected the franchise greatly was when their beloved manager, Gil Hodges, died from a heart attack while enjoying a round of golf with his coaches during spring training in 1972. He was just 47. Forty-seven!

Yogi Berra took over and guided the club to a second World Series appearance in ’73, and this is not anything against Yogi, but Mets fans will never know if Hodges would have become one of those decade-plus-long skippers, like a Tony LaRussa, or Tommy Lasorda, or Joe Torre, and with similar successes.

The organization also was saddened when minor leaguer Brian Cole was killed in a car accident in 2001.

Ballplayers from other organizations who have been killed in auto accidents over the years include: Sandy Acevedo (2016), Nick Adenhart (2009), Mike Miley (1977), Bob Moose (1976), Jose Oliva (1997), Chico Ruiz (1972), and Oscar Taveras (2014).

Ramon Ramirez (Orioles) and Jose Rosario (Astros) were killed in separate motorcycle accidents earlier this year.

Ex-Met Danny Frisella, while a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, was killed in an off-season dune buggy accident in 1977.

Angels outfielder Lyman Bostock was shot and killed while a passenger in a friend’s car in an incident from 1978.

Bostock wasn’t the only murder victim from baseball’s history.

Miguel Fuentes, a pitcher for the Seattle Pilots, was murdered in a bar fight in Puerto Rico in 1970. Dernell Stenson, and outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds, was murdered during a robbery attempt in 2003. Red Sox pitcher Ed Morris was stabbed during a bar fight in Florida in 1932. In 2011, Mariners outfielder Greg Halman was murdered by his brother.

Way back in 1900, Marty Bergen, a catcher for the then-Boston Beaneaters, committed suicide after murdering his own family.

Under the category of very unusual fatalities, Brewers pitcher Geremi Gonzalez was killed by a lightning strike in 2008. Hall of Famer Ed Delehanty met his demise in a mysterious incident in 1903 when he was swept into and over Niagara Falls. The full details of this accident are not known to this day.

In 1975, Astros pitcher Don Wilson died from carbon monoxide poisoning in his home. His young son also died.

And we just have to note that Pickles Dilhoefer, a 28-year-old catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, died from typhoid fever in 1907. Yes, Pickles Dilhoefer. That Pickles Dilhoefer.

We also pay homage to two ballplayers who died in the service of their country. Eddy Grant was a doughboy killed during World War I in 1918. Elmer Gedeon was an outfielder for the Washington Senators when he was killed during World War II in 1944.

Several players have been killed or died during a game. The most famous incident occurred in 1920, when Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was killed by a pitch thrown by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. Chapman died twelve hours after being hit. He was just 29.

John Dodge, a third base prospect for the Reds, was killed by a pitch in 1916 in a minor league game.

A 37-year-old infielder in Europe, Hartog Hamburger, was killed by a line drive to the head in a game in Amsterdam in 1924. Who knew they even played much baseball in Europe in 1924, but they did. Hamburger’s legacy includes his son, Max, who became a resistance fighter and a holocaust survivor in WW II.

Minor league coach Mike Coolbaugh, brother to former major leaguer Scott Coolbaugh, was killed by a line drive while coaching third base in the minors in 2007. This incident is the reason why all major league coaches now wear batting helmets on the field.

And in 1996, major league umpire John McSherry died on the field in Cincinnati after calling the first seven pitches of the Opening Day game of a massive heart attack.

Apologies to the memories of those we have overlooked, but here’s a moment of silence to all who have died prematurely in and around the game of baseball.

And a heavy heart goes out once more to the memory of Jose Fernandez.

R.I.P. Jose.

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