When 24 year-old Jose Fernandez pitched, anything was possible. He was young, vibrant, dominate on the mound, and even more importantly, was as passionate off the mound as he was on it.
Fernandez was a Rookie of the Year Award winner in 2013 and surely a future Cy Young Award winner. When you look at his current stats (ranked number 1 among all major league pitchers with a 6.2 WAR) and consider that he has racked up 589 strikeouts over 1,888 batters in his career, Fernandez appeared to be well on his way to be a Hall of Famer. His statistics exceeded those of current Hall of Famers Randy Johnson (28.5) and Pedro Martinez (27.7); Fernandez had an outstanding (31.2) clip.
Fernandez had a talent and the numbers from which a baseball franchise is built. An organization could evolve and grow around that type of talent for a generation. Fernandez was that good.
Sadly, we will never know. Early Sunday morning, Fernandez and two friends tragically passed away in a boating accident in the Miami Beach area.
Fernandez made us care. We cared about how he played the game he loved. Moreover, we cared about the man he was off the field, too. Watching him work was a pleasure, his joy gave his fans joy. It was contagious, expansive, and shared — hell, yes, his joy spread and could be felt throughout the ballpark and to all who watched from home. That’s why so many of us felt a personal loss Sunday morning. It was so sudden. It was so fast. It was too fast and much too soon. The questions one often ponders when the shock of sudden loss occurs….”Why?’; “Why Fernandez?”; “Why take one of baseball’s bright, shining new stars?”
These kind of emotional connections in sports are so rare. We didn’t know him; but we did. Fernandez’s exile story was our story, from fleeing to freeing, so we mourn as a family and ask questions with no answers. Hopefully, we appreciate life and love a little more than we did before.
An uncommon joy has been extinguished. Fernandez had found freedom on one boat, and now his life has ended on another. There will be uncomfortable questions about that in the coming days, and an investigation, but nobody wants to hear about that during the grief of the eulogy. This feels so cruel, so wrong, so unfair. It is the worst kind of awful; a young life extinguished with thudding finality before it could really be lived. Any life lost at such a young age is tragic, but to those of us who love baseball as much as Fernandez did, somehow this loss is felt harder even though we did not personally know him.
I’m not talking about his promise or his pitching potential, even though he was on his way to a $200 million contract (or the fact that his loss of his baseball value will impact the franchise). I’m talking about his personality, his energy, his soul, his heart. Fernandez had so much joy, enthusiasm, gratitude, and passion pouring from him it made you believe he had a heart even bigger than the diamond. He was so grateful for being in this country, for getting to do what he loved (play baseball); he squeezed every ounce of fun and talent out of the day — that it could move even the repressed and the sour. His smile and laugh routinely thawed stoic statues like Giancarlo Stanton; even hitting coach Barry Bonds was always kissing him in the damn dugout.
In the history of South Florida sports, only Dontrelle Willis has matched his contagious enthusiasm and charisma. He loved what he did, loved it so hard and so big, loved it so much that he forced you to love it, too. Fernandez played the way the best Latin music feels. He acted like a little boy in a sports world soaked with adult problems and cynicisms that can make us lose sight of the root verb at the center of what he did for a living. You expected him to throw his glove into the sky at the end of successful innings. You know what watching him work felt like to South Florida’s Cubans?
All around that ballpark, in the bodegas and restaurants where English is not the predominate language, you will find a slice of his story. So much of Miami’s economy, vibrancy, culture, and flavor are built around it. Fernandez tried to defect from Cuba four times, once saving his drowning mother during an attempted escape. The desperation on the island where he initially went before coming to the United States was such that he kept literally throwing his life to the wind to escape it. He was jailed after being caught once, but said the first few months of freedom in this country were harder on him than even the incarceration in that jail.
Fernandez didn’t understand how the faucet sensors worked in America’s airport bathrooms. He knew so little English that he didn’t even know where to put his name on a high school test. He so missed the grandmother who raised him, a grandmother who would later go to the roof of her apartment in Cuba to hear him pitch in the All-Star Game on her tiny radio, that he would wander off into the woods to cry for hours at a time. But his golden arm reached across that ocean and got his grandmother here in an emotional reunion two years ago. Jose Fernandez was just beginning to share and live the best parts of his realized American dream. He had his first baby on the way. He worked so hard and sacrificed so much to get to the top of this mountain, and he barely had time to enjoy the view. From everyone who watched you, we idolized you,
Thank you, José, for sharing your joyful smile, for telling your story and for expressing the Cuban story with so much color and flair. Finally, thank you for making us care in a way that is so hard to see today through our tears. Your heart was bigger than the diamond. You’ll never be forgotten.
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