Beyond The Game – The Death of Jose Fernandez
The rain threatened Sunday, as it often does in South Florida. This Sunday, rain is fitting.
From somewhere above the fray, I can’t help but believe Roberto Clemente’s tears must’ve rained down, on this overcast day in Texas and Florida, alike. They are needed, to reflect the sorrow and wash away the pain for a game deprived yet again of a beacon of talent, opportunity, and joy.
Such is the pain and disbelief at the loss of Jose Fernandez.
Watching him face batters was like watching a samurai with a carving knife. He sliced them up with a smile, overwhelmed them with a fastball or buckled their knees with a curve. Then he pumped his fist, screamed in exuberance and just to make sure they knew he was living the joy and not showing them up, he would laugh and smile. It was rare for even the vanquished batter not to at least betray a grin.
He tried three times before finally escaping his native Cuba on the fourth try. All of baseball is better for a harrowing boat trip – one in which he saved his mother’s life, diving into the pitch-black ocean to pull her to safety.
And now he is gone.
For us in Texas, it is like waking up to the headline, “Yu Darvish dies in car crash on I-30.” Thus was the talent. That was the intensity and joy. Thus was the potential of Jose Fernandez. That last word will now echo throughout time for Jose Fernandez. Any story of “What might have been” will be incomplete without his name. Ken Hubbs. Lyman Bostock. Steve Olin. Nick Adenhart. Oscar Taveras. Now Jose Fernandez.
So, too, did I. I never saw Jose Fernandez in person, never met him – never really knew him outside the way any fan knows any great player – but there was something different about him. There was a joy, an exuberance that lent him a magnetism beyond his years or even his talent. He was innocent and unknowing in many ways, but never lacked savvy on the field and never let skill overwhelm his main point in playing baseball: to beat you and to enjoy every moment he could experience in doing it.
As Buster Olney wrote Sunday:
“He was as big a fan of baseball as any player in the game, someone who loved to watch what other players were doing, someone who loved to watch other teams. Fernandez once told me that if he hadn’t played baseball, he would’ve followed it closely, playing fantasy, because he did everything with passion.”
He did everything, as best I can tell, with a passion. His smile was ever-present. He may have been an odds-on future Hall of Famer, but he was an absolute lock as a future baseball broadcaster and analyst. His exuberance, enthusiasm, and joy of the game literally rippled out with his voice.
I can’t really relate this, rightly, with words, other than to tell you I gasped, then sobbed unashamedly for a man who never faced my team, or played for it; for a man who I never saw live. A man whose jersey or t-shirt I never owned. Because he was a man – just this side of a boy, really – who, simply, happened to embody most of everything I love about baseball. Joy and enthusiasm. Playing the game intensely and hard, but always keeping it a game. Never giving up, through barbed wire barriers or barbed-wire-shaped scars on elbows.
He played with an enthusiasm and joy such that Don Mattingly, the ultimate professional, the ultimate buttoned-up superstar, and ultimately a father figure who was helping Fernandez to his best season ever – couldn’t get past the word “little boy” when describing the enthusiasm with which Fernandez pitched.
His stepfather was a doctor in Cuba who defected to Tampa in 2005. Jose, his mother, Maritza, and sister, Yadenis, made three unsuccessful tries in a speedboat to join his stepfather. The third failed attempt nearly derailed his dream; it saw Jose land in jail and he was expelled from the state-run boarding school for elite athletes that he’d been attending.
The fourth try was much more harrowing; it was truly life and death. At one point, Jose dove into the Gulf of Mexico to save his mother from drowning – swimming through 8-foot waves to get to her, then 30 yards back to the boat – before the family found safe haven in Mexico. They stopped shortly in Texas before they finally settled in Florida.
He was a pillar of the community, someone who was an inspiration to Cuban-Americans everywhere, but most especially in Miami’s vibrant Cuban community, as Dan Le Batard brilliantly captures here.
He made even hard men—stoic and self-involved men, like Barry Bonds—love to be around him. Consider Bonds, truly a man who rarely ever smiled, clowning with a man who rarely ever stopped.
By the end of Jose’s career, he might have been on Barry’s level as a pitcher. Yes; his talent was that good. He was a player for his generation, of his generation – he danced, he flaunted, he challenged and then backed it up; an unbridled exuberance, backed by unstoppable ability.
As much as he was of his generation, his talent and ability were truly generational, as were his accomplishments; ESPN cataloged them well here. Over parts of just four injury-dampened seasons, was named the National League Rookie of the Year in 2013, was 38-17 with a 2.58 ERA in 76 career starts, all for Miami. Here’s where Fernandez ranks from his rookie year forward (among pitchers with 450+ innings), in some key areas:
|K per 9||1st (11.25)|
|Opp. BA||Tied 2nd (2.09)|
|Opp. OPS||3rd (.579)|
|Fielding-Independent Pitching||2nd (2.43)|
In the argument for “best pitcher not named Clayton Kershaw” when healthy, Fernandez was leading the charge (he had Tommy John surgery in May of 2014 and returned in mid-2015). Since coming back from Tommy John, he had steadily improved, although he had pitched at pre-surgery levels since basically his second start back. In that game, signaling that he was truly back, Fernandez struck out nine in seven shutout innings – yielding only six hits to the Reds, and throwing 72 of 94 pitches for strikes.
He was 16-8 with a 2.86 ERA this season, earning his second appearance in the All-Star Game despite pitching in a pitching-dominant era. His strikeouts per nine innings, 12.49, paces all of baseball this season and his career total of 11.25 is better than all but one starting pitcher in history with at least 470 innings pitched. The only starter ahead of him is Yu Darvish, with 11.26.
But even with those stats, Grantland Rice’s words apply well to Hernandez:
“Game Called. Upon the field of life
the darkness gathers far and wide;
the dream is done, the score is spun
that stands forever in the guide.
Nor victory, nor yet defeat
is chalked against the players name.
But down the roll, the final scroll
shows only how he played the game.”
Fernandez was dominant and demonstrative, but with a joy and a humanity that made him loved throughout baseball.
He would have made hundreds of millions and given who knows what kind of time and money to South Florida and whatever other communities he might have been a part of via free agency.
Regardless of his arm, he’d have fit so perfectly on this Rangers team. Fernandez’ joy and enthusiasm would have made him fast friends with everyone down the line. He would have goofed around with Dutch, laughed and gestured with Beltre and Andrus, and playfully pulled Lucroy’s beard.
There is little doubt that he would have photobombed every Emily Jones shot he could have. He’d have embraced the postgame Powerade bath and been a frequent bath-giver with Elvis and the crew.
He was a truly good kid who called his grandmother the “love of his life”. He famously and joyously (what else) became a U.S. citizen in April 2015. He was an expectant father, a fact he and his girlfriend announced not even a week ago.
There is more, so much more, to write on Jose Fernandez than I have room for here. There always was, always would be.
There were the future All-Star games and Cy Young awards. He was set to be a first-time father. There were the pennant races versus the Mets and Nationals. There were battles against the likes of Noah Syndergaard and Bryce Harper. There’s no doubt he’d probably crack both into a smile somehow. There was so much more.
The sadness comes in thinking of all that might have been, that will now go unwritten.