I knew as soon as I saw the news of José Fernández’s death that I needed to write a post about the kind of player and person he was. It’s been nearly five days and I am just now able to gather my thoughts well enough to write some semblance of a blog post. I still can’t read anything about José without crying; my eyes have been running like a leaky faucet the last few days. I hope I can get through writing this without crying, but knowing me, I probably won’t.
Let me start by saying that José was one of my favorite pitchers to watch. Every time he took the mound, I watched in awe of how well he was able to master his craft. At 24 (my age, astonishingly), he was able to command the mound in ways many veterans could not. A game against José usually meant a loss and the Marlins knew that when he was on the bump, he would give absolutely everything he had to give them a chance to win.
But he gave more to baseball than just a filthy curveball and a nearly unhittable fastball. His legacy will be how much joy he brought to the game. Ten, fifteen, twenty years from now, his accomplishments on the mound will be footnotes. The pure joy and childlike enthusiasm he exuded was unmatched and what should be remembered about him. He reminded everyone how magical baseball was. Watching José watch his teammates play baseball reminded me of why I liked to watch baseball. I was reminded of the absolute joy I got whenever I could see a game in person. Watching José watch baseball was like looking through a window into the innocence of my childhood, the happiness that was untainted by the evils of the baseball world (the knowledge of PEDs, over-priced tickets, lack of diversity, etc). José reminded me to watch baseball through glittering eyes.
Not only was he a joyous person, he was a good person. Three times he tried to defect from Cuba, and three times he failed. On his fourth attempt, he successfully made it to Mexico, only after saving a woman who went overboard. José jumped into the water to save this woman without realizing the woman he was saving was his mother. He poured himself into baseball upon arriving in America and forced himself to master the English language. When he would give interviews, you’d think he had been speaking English his entire life. He devoted time and money to charities in Miami. He made so many large-scale impacts on society, but he also made impacts on people on an individual level. He would ask kids for their autographs. He would talk to people in the stands. He made sure every fan he interacted with felt welcomed.
José Fernández was a living embodiment of the American Dream. Many could argue that the American Dream is the figment of a Willy Loman-esque imagination, but José proved that the allusive and often proverbial “American Dream” could be achieved. Hard work, skill, luck, and persistence were enough to catapult him to superstardom. His handsome face, infectious smile, affable personality, generosity, candor, and work ethic were what endeared him to millions of fans across the country. His story was the story of thousands of Cuban immigrants – the hard work it takes to make it in America, coupled with the passion and desire to make life better for their families is a story that every person, immigrant or not, can relate to.
The death of José Fernández leaves a gaping hole in the fabric of the baseball community. But beyond that, his death leaves a gaping hole in the communities he impacted. I cannot imagine how devastated the Cuban community must be. I’m a white girl in New Jersey and I am devastated by his death. I cannot imagine being a Cuban in Miami right now. I can’t.
Oh Lord here come the tears.
Stars don’t burn forever and often, the brightest stars lose their shine and fade away. Life is cruel and merciless in that it reminds us sometimes stars die before they’ve had a chance to shine their brightest. I think José Fernández died before we saw how brightly he could shine. He leaves behind a legacy of joy, happiness, courage, strength, and resilience. But more than that, he left behind his family. He left behind an unborn baby girl. He left millions of fans who didn’t even know him, but we felt like did.
Unfairly, with a twist of terrible irony, he was taken away from this world on a boat. It was a boat that gave him the freedom so many of us take for granted. It was on a boat that he was able to escape Cuba and begin his new life in America. Tragically, it was on a boat in Miami where his life ended. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. He was supposed to have a Hall of Fame career, get his number retired, and live a long life. Now, his career is going to be full of “what could have been” moments. His number will never be worn by a Marlin again, but not because of his accomplishments. He will never get to see the world beyond 24 years of age.
I’d like to think that José is in heaven, lobbing fastballs at Babe Ruth and grinning at him when he strikes him out. José is clearly up there watching baseball, as evidence by Dee Gordon’s homerun on the day after José’s death. Or the grand slam by his childhood friend, Aledmys Diaz’s, coming a day after the St. Louis Cardinal’s infielder flew to Miami to be with José’s family.
Gordon’s homerun was especially poignant – he took his first pitch in the right-handed batter’s box as a homage to his late friend, and then he barreled his first homerun of the season deep into the right field seats. He ran around the bases and collapsed into the arms of his teammates, sobbing, all of them with José’s number 16 on their backs. Gordon hit one of the greatest homeruns baseball has ever seen, and it reminds us all of how magical this game really is.
José Fernández saw the magic that has always existed in baseball.
May we never forget to see the magic.