Remembering Jose Fernandez: Baseball’s Fountain of Youth
I rolled over Sunday morning to the gut-wrenching news. Like many, I’m sure, I thought it had to be a mistake. Jose Fernandez could not be dead. The news landed a swift body blow, lodging an ache deep in the recesses of my stomach. I flipped open my computer. Fernandez gazed back at me, his Baseball Reference page open and a Twitter search of his name sat on my screen from the previous night. From beneath his dark Marlins cap, a sly smile gazed back at me.
On the nightstand next to where my computer had been, one word stared back at me. Before falling asleep, I left a note on my nightstand. “FANTASY BEFORE 1:00,” a reminder to set my lineup for Sunday’s slate of games, the conclusion to 24 weeks of an unhealthy devotion to a Yahoo! Sports-facilitated quasi-reality.
FANTASY. This was anything but.
Last thing before I fell asleep late Saturday night, I learned that Marlins starter Adam Conley would bump Jose Fernandez from his turn in the rotation Sunday, the final day of my fantasy baseball championship. Jose Fernandez was my ace in the hole. I was deeply frustrated that Fernandez couldn’t help me beat my lifelong best friend in a fantasy championship (the pinnacle of bragging rights).
Baseball is an endlessly quantified game. Such a heavy focus on numbers distills the game and highlights statistics, drawing our attention to something we can see without actually seeing: an on-base percentage, a swinging strike rate, a run differential. You don’t need to see every at bat to appreciate a high batting average.
Fantasy sports are the same way. They represent the real production of real players while simultaneously obscuring the real individuals from view. They introduce a self-serving aspect to our sporting consumption, a manufactured sense of ownership over your players that produce for your team.
As a result, fantasy sports are ironically counter-productive; they seek to accomplish precisely what they prevent. In an attempt to bring you closer to players from around the league, you end up losing sight of (or ignoring completely) their unique personalities and individual stories for the forest of numbers cluttering your view.
I felt guilty. Guilty of only appreciating Jose Fernandez’s last season for the numbers it generated. Guilty because, for the last six months, he was just one of 28 players on my roster. How foolishly naïve. He was not mine, nor did he belong to any one fantasy owner, or any one nation.
Jose Fernandez was a refined treasure, his enrapturing spirit and childlike innocence a persistent breath of fresh air in an era that painstakingly crucifies individual athletes for their shortcomings on the field and off. And he belonged to the baseball world.
His stuff was everything and nothing, sharp enough to leave you speechless but dwarfed by his fervent passion for the game. And it took a special kind of personality to match the pitching prowess of the man who holds the highest strikeout percentage for a starter in baseball history. To only appreciate his numbers would be to take a grandfather clock at face value. You may feel that the ever-rotating arms will provide you everything you need to know about it. But its soul lies in the intricate collection of tightly packed gears obscured from view, the pendulum swaying back and forth that provides its heartbeat.
Fernandez provided us the ultimate conundrum: How can we both appreciate his historic numbers and fathom his deeply emotional style of play? How can we appreciate the beauty and reliability of the clock, while still giving credit to the complex inner-workings that bring it to life and make it unique?
Is it possible to appreciate this…
…without losing sight of this?
Such a notion feels too much for one mere mortal to comprehend.
His uninhibited emotion plastered a smile across his face more often than not. That infectious smile spread through division rival fan bases and crossed borders. Fernandez was the ultimate poster boy for the American Dream. Nowhere, and for nobody, did that mean more than to Cuban-Americans in Miami. He was a boy willing to risk his life attempting to defect four times. He was a boy who, while defecting at 15 years old, jumped into the sea to rescue an overboard passenger who turned out to be his mother, and swam her back to the boat.
If Sunday was a reminder of anything, it’s that every moment that we don’t spend appreciating someone for who they are is a moment we may never get back. There are real people with real personalities underneath those Majestic uniforms. And none more real than Jose Fernandez.
Enter Dodgers Stadium, April 28. Just three months shy of his 24th birthday, he steps into the box against Kenta Maeda. Fernandez whiffs at a devilish 1-0 slider from Maeda and can’t contain his admiration, that oh-so-familiar smile darting across his face before he could even regain his balance.
After grounding out, Fernandez stops at the top step of the dugout to bang out his cleats. His grin returned, and like a preacher from a pulpit, he looked down to his disciples and told the tale of his mighty hack at Maeda’s masterful offering. (Bonus: if you watch the MLB.com footage, Vin Scully narrates Fernandez’s childhood in Cuba spent hitting rocks with sticks.)
This reminded me of something I wrote during the 2015 Little League World Series about a pitcher who was taken deep and, like Fernandez, couldn’t contain his admiration:
“That embarrassment [of being taken yard on national TV at the age of 12] never seemed to cross Garrard’s mind. Instead, he gazed into the distance, open-mouthed, laughing in pure admiration and respect for what he just witnessed.”
That was Jose Fernandez.
Or the evening in Miami during his rookie season when he somehow snagged a Troy Tulowitzki liner back up the box, prompting a genuine exchanged between the two all-stars that oozed with humanity:
That was Jose Fernandez.
Too often, that barefaced emotion is coached out of players as they grow up. For a guy who experienced a lifetime worth of hardships by the time you and I were trying to solve puberty, he never lost his innocence. That much is miraculous.
Baseball is just a vessel through which ordinary people with extraordinary gifts distinguish themselves. You can be remembered for what you did in the majors, but who you were decides the magnitude of your legend. The game cements legacies not for the unknown or the undeserving, but for the passionate few whose attitude and love of the game shine brighter than their accomplishments. Numbers aren’t retired for what a man did, they’re retired for who he was. Jose Fernandez’s No. 16 will forever watch over the future of the Marlins, his death a constant reminder of a life cut so many innings short. The pain will forever slice more deeply than any snapped breaking ball, burn hotter than any 98 mph heater.
In a game where every act, every result is recorded and measured, a man who encompasses everything that can’t be quantified leaves an everlasting impression.
To see his name and number emblazoned on the backs of his teammates Monday was eerily gut-wrenching. The white letters stood out on the black jersey as prominently as his pearly whites when he beamed his patented wide-mouthed grin.
And for Dee Gordon to take a pitch right-handed to honor Hernandez, switch to the left-handed batters box, and launch an upper-deck homer over Fernandez’s No. 16 on the right field wall was nothing short of supernatural. A flood of emotions caught Gordon as he rounded first base. After touching home, he hugged Marcel Ozuna. Upon reaching the dugout, he fell into the arms of Martin Prado. Then Barry Bonds. Then Christian Yelich and Giancarlo Stanton. It was as if the reality of a life without Jose Fernandez began to sink in, zapping him of his energy. It was a moment so heavily saturated with pure emotion. A most fitting tribute for Jose Fernandez.
His death was devastatingly poetic. He was a fountain of youth, any teammates or fans who indulged in his energy felt as if they were dipped in magic waters, themselves better for having experienced his genuine passion. For the entirety of his life, he never lost that youthful glow.
His live-wire right arm was fueled by an unwavering dedication to showcase it on the world’s brightest stage. But from the moment he introduced himself to MLB, his personality, his sincerity stole the show.
He played the game with the youthful exuberance of a little leaguer promised orange slices and a juice box upon the final out. And he did it for no other reason than that was the only way he knew how to play the game. He felt lucky and proud to play baseball in America, and we should feel lucky and proud to have watched him.
Feature photo courtesy of Arturo Pardavila III