No one had more fun playing baseball than Jose Fernandez. The fact that I just used “had” to talk about a 24-year old is the saddest thing I have ever had to write.
When writing about any hot button topic, especially an untimely death, it’s hard not to sound like you’re piling on, trying to cash in on a tragedy for page views. And while I try not to shout into the ether, I think there’s an important sect of baseball fans who often are talked about but don’t always speak for themselves and to whom Jose Fernandez was the brightest beacon: the young baseball fan.
Jose Fernandez is going to be remembered for a lot of things. Pedro Martinez described him as “a better talent that I was.” Pedro was a first ballot Hall of Famer. And baseball statistician Ryan Spaeder tweeted: “Jose Fernandez struck out 31.2% of batters he faced. No starting pitcher in history recorded strikeouts at a greater rate.”
But I’ll be honest, there have been plenty of otherworldly baseball players. There was only one Jose Fernandez.
“I have observed that baseball is not unlike war,” said Ty Cobb a long time ago when the biggest skill a player could have was his machismo. Fernandez had enough trauma just trying to get to the U.S. He and his mother tried three times to reach Miami from their native Cuba, but failed each time. On their fourth attempt, they made it to the US by way of Mexico, but not before Fernandez jumped in the water to save his drowning mother from the rough surf. It seems as though once he finally got to the ultimate destination of the majors, he decided he’d had enough serious moments for a lifetime.
During Fernandez’s 2013 Rookie of the Year season, I heard bits and pieces about some kid in Miami looking like the next big thing. But that wasn’t what I saw the first time I watched him. The first time I remember seeing Jose Fernandez is maybe his most famous moment, and he wasn’t even on the mound: it was him celebrating in the dugout after a mammoth, game-tying home run from fellow Cuban and Marlin Giancarlo Stanton in the bottom of the ninth. Watching Fernandez bang on the banister and yell from some primal place inside of him, I just remember thinking that he was someone who was going to have fun, no matter what.
Later that season, Fernandez hit his first career home run. And as any 20-year old who hit his first Major League home run is wont to do, he watched it soar over the left field wall before beginning his trot. This being baseball, that irked the Braves, particularly old-school catcher Brian McCann, leading to the benches clearing. The lasting image from that dustup? Fernandez being pulled out of the circle with the biggest smile on his face, the smile of a kid still elated over his first home run despite literal push back from the “old guard.”
“When I think about Jose, I see such a little boy,” said Marlins manager, Don Mattingly, in a tearful press conference on Sunday. “The way he played, there was just a joy with him. When you watch kids play Little League or something like that, that’s the joy that Jose played with.”
He was someone a younger generation of baseball fans could latch on to. Yes, there are other young, incredible baseball players and there will always be more. But Jose Fernandez felt like ours because those of us who somehow found a way to find fun in the game knew he had found it too; he was just a lot better at it than the rest of us. A big kid in the Big Leagues, he treated playing baseball on the biggest stage exactly as we would if we were in his cleats. He literally laughed in the face of baseball’s old school, way-too-serious culture.
Jose Fernandez has joined the pantheon of baseball “what-ifs” alongside Munson, Clemente, Adenhart, Taveras and too many others. But I won’t spend my time thinking about the records he could have held. What gets me is how many more times he would have made me and so many others laugh, how many more kids he would have convinced that baseball could be fun. In his too-short four-year career and too-short 24-year life, his biggest accomplishments were only tangentially related to his remarkable success on the field.
On Sunday, I watched the video of Fernandez seeing his grandmother in 2014 for the first time in years and I cried. This was the first time I had cried about anything sports related since the Helmet Catch. I felt better the day after 18-1. I do not feel better today.
Jose Fernandez was an icon, an incredible talent and above all, a friend, son and grandson. I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him, but I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that it sure felt like I did.