People often ask me how can you love baseball so much and my simple answer is actually a question, “How can you not?” But, the more in depth answer is found in the tragic death of José Fernández, or more accurately, its aftermath.
Last Sunday, in the early hours of the morning, the devastating news of José Fernández’s boating accident reverberated across social media. The first photo I saw was a mangled boat, capsized on a jetty. The headline said José Fernández, Marlins pitching star, and two friends were dead. The story was still developing, but the devastating bottomline was clear, one of the most charismatic and electric pitchers in baseball was gone. He was only 24 years old.
I don’t know much about José outside of baseball, but he was very close to his grandmother who was brought to the states to finally see her grandson pitch. She used to play baseball with him when he was a boy, back in Cuba.
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A few days ago, he shared a photo on Instagram of his lovely girlfriend carrying their first child. My heart goes out to this young woman and this baby who will never know her daddy.
However, my knowledge of Fernández comes from the baseball side and being a fan of the Dodgers. He was the pitcher with the million dollar arm and megawatt smile. There were trade rumblings regarding Fernández coming to the Dodgers at one time, but the price was a bit too high for our more conservative front office. As rumors had it, the Marlins wanted to pretty much clear out our farm system in a trade. While many of us didn’t want to lose our prospects, the mere thought of Fernández in Dodger blue and part of a one-two punch with Clayton Kershaw left many fans salivating.
He would’ve fit in well with our boys in blue, not to mention his close friend and fellow Cuban, Yasiel Puig. Their friendship grew from their similar paths to the US from Cuba. Puig told reporters, with tears rolling down his face, that he would dedicate the game to Fernández. He also put up a José Fernández jersey in the dugout to honor his lost friend.
Yasiel Puig putting José Fernández's jersey up in the Dodgers' dugout. pic.twitter.com/SyciS0QzMb
— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) September 25, 2016
Like Puig, Fernández exhibited an exuberance and joy in playing this boy’s game. He had an unabashed passion and fierceness. One of my favorite clips is Fernández snatching a liner out of the air and Tulo asking incredulously, “Did you catch that?” And José with that huge smile said, “Yes, I did”. That moment was just so him, and how I’ll always remember him.
However, baseball really showed its heart in the aftermath of this tragedy. Beyond the fandoms, baseball is a family and we lost a family member. A death in ‘our family’ brings us together. Together we mourned this man and for one night when the Marlins took the field, the day after this terrible tragedy, we were all Marlins. Nobody showed more reverence and respect for the team and their pain than the New York Mets. They stood with their brothers in baseball and let them grieve. They knew this was bigger than the game.
As the Marlin’s took the field and surrounded the pitcher’s mound where Fernández so often worked his magic, they removed their hats and openly wept. In a breathtaking display of compassion the Marlins and Mets lined up and went down the line hugging each other.
Then the baseball God’s did what they’ve done on many an occasion, they sprinkled some magic over the somber field. Dee Gordon, one-time Dodger, with his head down, walked to the right side of the plate. He mimicked Fernández’s familiar batting stance and took a pitch. Then he switched sides of the plate to his normal left side approach. Next, as if following an unwritten script, Gordon hit his first home run of the season. This home run wouldn’t propel the Marlins into the playoffs. It wouldn’t count in any way towards the season, it did something bigger though, it honored a friend. It gave the baseball family – players and fans alike – something to cheer for, a release of some of their pain.
Every person who watched that magical hit must have briefly saw José Fernández standing in the dugout, his smile a mile wide as he cheered with reckless abandon. He would’ve loved that moment.
As for Gordon, he ran the bases with tears streaming down his anguished face. His teammates met him at the dugout with tear-filled eyes and open arms. They all felt the power of the moment. This beautiful moment will live on as testament of friendship and baseball’s ability to heal even the most broken of hearts.
So, why did this affect us West Coast fans so much? Perhaps it was our ties that ran through this tragic story. The rumored trade talks, a former Dodger in Dee Gordon or simply just seeing Yasiel Puig in tears. I think it’s all of those factors, but above all it was the talent lost. A talent that surpassed our team loyalties. No fan of baseball could watch José pitch without appreciating his immeasurable talent. His charisma and love for the game is what made us Dodger fans fall in love with him, even when he blew fast balls past our best hitters. We were all the richer for having seen him play and we’re all the poorer for the loss.
Rest in peace, José – gone, but never forgotten.