In 2013 he won the NL Rookie of the Year Award and was third in NL Cy Young voting. This year he broke the Marlins record for strikeouts in a season with 253, shattering the previous record that had stood for over fifteen years.
Now that the trivial stuff is out of the way I can begin in earnest.
I could begin by talking about Jose’s harrowing story of escape from Cuba, his fearful nights in a new, foreign, and bizarre country, his separation from his grandmother, his rapid ascension to one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers, his emotional reunion with his grandmother, his major road block in the form of a torn UCL ligament and Tommy John surgery, or his triumphant return once again to baseball prominence. These are all incredible stories, indelible stories that illuminate the type of pitcher and person Jose was.
Instead I have decided to take a melancholic approach, focusing on the absolute momentousness of the tragedy itself. There will be plenty of obituaries, and memoriams, and highlights, and stories that will deal with the individual moments of triumph and challenge that marked Fernández’s rich but tragically short life.
But through an examination of the pain and the horror of it all, by confronting the hurt his shocking death has caused, we can emerge with an even more profound appreciation for his life and the impact he had on so many of us. The impact of José Fernández was so far-reaching, in spite of a mere 24-years upon this Earth.
First and foremost, we think of his family. We think of his parents who lost their son. His grandmother, whose odyssey to reunite with Fernández drove him to succeed his rookie season, only adds to the heartbreak. Fernández pregnant girlfriend provides an almost tragic Shakespearian element to a story already seeped in agony: a woman who has lost her love, and a child who has lost its father before even meeting him.
If you are a religious person, pray for them. If you are not religious, take some time to hold them in your thoughts. Whatever pain we are feeling collectively as a community, it cannot possibly compare to the depths of despair his family is feeling. Tell your family you love them; appreciate the time you have had with them – the human condition is fleetingly short.
We think of the impact he had on baseball, both broadly and amongst his coaches and teammates and peers. Those images, of Fernández Marlins teammates confronting the awful truth, might be the most haunting of all. The beautifully tragic image of a kneeling Dee Gordon at the Marlins Park pitcher mound will become one of the most memorable images in baseball history.
I think of Don Mattingly at the presser on Sunday morning, flanked by his tearful players, talking to the media.
“I see such a little boy in him in the way he played,” Mattingly said, failing to hide his grief.
Mattingly’s words were the most poignant of the day. Yes, the lasting image of Jose Fernández will be him smiling on the mound and raucously celebrating in the dugout after a Giancarlo Stanton home run, just as a Little Leaguer would.
But Mattingly’s use of the term “little boy” further belies the brevity of Fernández’s life. Ultimately and chronologically Fernández was just a boy, it was not supposed to end this soon. The cruelty of death becomes so much more oppressive.
Finally, Jose Fernández had an impact on all of us – the fans and the greater community of South Florida. Fernandez’s connection with the Cuban community is obvious and particularly transcendent.
Quite frankly I cannot and should not attempt to explicate a relationship that I can only understand from the words of others. I will simply say that Fernández bravely escaped from the only land he ever knew to benefit himself on our shores, and not only did he succeed, he flourished in a way that is scarcely possible anywhere else.
Charles Barkley once infamously said that athletes should not be role models, and generally I agree with this sentiment, yet for the Cuban population here I may have to make an exception.
Of course Fernández’s appeal is not limited just to Cuban-Americans. Fernández’s dominance as a pitcher and his magnetic and exuberant personality made him a fan favorite from the moment he stepped on the mound. Fernandez was always one to stay in the park long after the final pitch to sign balls and bats and shirts for the fans, especially if they were kids.
I imagine there were many sobbing children this morning having learned the fate of one of their favorite players, and I am equally sure many of their parents joined them in their sorrow.
Casey McGehee played about a season and a half with the Marlins, winning the NL Comeback Player of the Year award in 2014 with the club. He currently plays for the Detroit Tigers.
McGehee has two sons his own: one of whom, Mack, suffers from cerebral palsy. While with the Marlins, Fernández apparently developed a relationship with Mack – watching over him while McGehee took batting practice. “The toughest part for me,” McGehee said to Evan Woodbury of MLive.com, “has been having to tell my son.”
Sunday was an emotional day for all of us. Sometimes people are cynical about the fans paying tribute to athletes, there is a cold, calculated interest in rooting for them after all, yet I truly feel like Fernández death shook many in South Florida in a way that no one can quite describe. I, and many others, have certainly tried to put this zeitgeist into words, but I do not think anyone has done it quite yet.
All I can say with absolute certainty is that Jose Fernandez’s impact and legacy did not die with him. While the sadness and heartbreak may hover over us for some time, we will remember Jose for who he was – on the diamond and off it – with more clarity and focus than his untimely demise.
For me, my greatest memory of Jose was him hitting his first home run, causing the benches to clear between the Marlins and Braves. While Brian McCann was raving and being held back by Marlins coaches and players, Jose Fernández was just smiling. He was so excited to hit his first major league home run; he was just so damn excited to just play.
I’ll miss that, we will all miss that, but damn it we will not forget the joy and memories he brought. Jose Fernandez was, and is, a true South Florida icon. Thank you Jose, I’m sorry it took until now for me say so.