Jose Fernandez: A lost light

One year ago, one of baseball’s bright young stars went out. We take some time to reflect and look back at what it was that Jose Fernandez brought to the game.

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It takes a lot to be a standout player on a baseball field. One of the best things about baseball is that there’s no set “type” of player you have to be to succeed. Some players are sluggers, some are speedsters, some are defensive dynamos. We often admire these ballplayers for their abilities on the field and marvel at what they’ll do next. This is their job: playing a child’s game on a professional level.

A man beloved

Jose Fernandez never made us forget that there was joy in playing baseball. That there is joy in all those little moments throughout the year. Not just when your team clinches a playoff berth, or wins a pennant, or goes to the World Series.  Just being out there and getting to pitch every five days was enough to fill him with so much joy. Whether you were a Marlins fan or not, you couldn’t help but smile when you saw his excitement for the game. It was contagious. He was grateful for being able to live his dream. And you could tell he savored every moment he got to be out on that mound.

Fernandez was beloved by his city too. Miami has a large Cuban-American population that identified with the pitcher, hailing from similar roots. He gave the fans something to get excited about every fifth day, and for the future. Everyone thought in the years to come he would be a Cy Young candidate. In his short time in the majors, his record was 38-17 with a 2.58 ERA. And even as rumors swirled around him about a possible trade that would send him to the Dodgers, Fernandez never lost focus. He stayed on top of his game at all times and never let his love for his home city waiver.

A rude awakening

When news broke on the morning of September 25th, that Fernandez had died in a boat crash the night before, it was heartbreaking. I remember waking up to a phone screen filled with tweets and notifications from several news sites.  It was something you read over and over multiple times because you could not believe it was true. We look at these ballplayers, and in our minds, they are put on a pedestal. Perhaps Fernadez thought that of himself. That there was no way someone as talented and good-hearted as Fernadez could just not exist in this world anymore. After a night of partying, the 24-year-old met his end when his boat hit a jetty off the coast of South Florida. The toxicology report would later reveal that Fernadez had elevated levels of alcohol and cocaine in his system when he crashed. He left behind a wife pregnant with their first child.

The city of Miami mourned. Baseball mourned. Players like Fernandez that come along are few and far between, and now just like that, he is gone. I can only think to compare it to the news of Roberto Clemente’s death in 1972. In the days that followed clubs throughout baseball had a Fernandez jersey made and hung in their dugout in his honor.

The Marlins’ first game back was against the New York Mets. It was a game Fernandez should have pitched. I remember specifically because I was concerned with the Mets in the NL Wild Card chase and knew facing Fernandez on the mound was almost a guaranteed loss. Instead, his absence was felt on the Marlins’ bench. Every player was wearing number 16 that night in his memory. I sobbed when Dee Gordon hit that leadoff home run and pointed to the sky as he crossed home. I don’t think I stopped crying throughout that entire game. It only seemed right that the Marlins walked away that night with a 7-3 victory over the Mets. It was never our game to win.

One of my favorite photos of Fernandez was after a game at Dodger Stadium. It was fireworks night, and he had taken a little folding chair, set it out on the field with the rest of the fans and looked up at the sky. He was just like any other kid in the ballpark that night, watching the sky light up above the San Gabriel Mountains.

Fernandez forever reminds us that if you love what you do, put your whole heart into it. Enjoy every second that you have, and never take that next day for granted.

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