When I first started writing about the (then Florida) Marlins back in 2009, it was a hobby and not a career. It was a diversion and not a serious endeavor. It would be fun to talk about my favorite team and indulge my thoughts with a community of Marlins fans. Over the years, it became a serious thing, a part of who I was, and the Marlins became more important to me than I ever thought they could be. Their every move impacted my life in a way that reached beyond being just a fan or just a professional writer. As a blogger, I got to wear both hats at the same time, and that is a privilege not everybody gets.
Yesterday, I wished I was never this strongly connected. This morning, I wish this was as remote an event to me as possible. It was very difficult to bear.
It is not so unusual for me to be away from the computer when breaking news of the Marlins strikes. I woke up yesterday morning knowing I had a shift to work, and I went in and dutifully worked the first few hours before the emails and texts came in about Jose Fernandez’s untimely passing in a boating accident. He was just 24 years old. Typically, this is when the Fish Stripes team mobilizes and breaks on the news, giving you all the coverage you need even though my analytical mind is away on my day job or doing something else. But with news like this, we all had to pause. When all of us started our writing careers, never did we think we would run into a situation like this. This was just too much.
A credit here goes to the rest of the Fish Stripes team for doing the hard work and putting pen to paper amid the most tragic of times. Scott Gelman and the rest of the team were great at publishing in a timely fashion even though none of us wanted to write and be working in a professional manner in a time like this.
In a way, I am glad that I was at work when I first received the news. My day job has a way of sucking in and keeping my attention more than anything else. It gave me time to think about something else and delay the inevitable thoughts and feelings of what just happened. It gave my mind a respite for the day, and with that rest, I woke this morning to sit down and think about what to write.
And in that moment, I cried. I watched tribute video after tribute video for Jose Fernandez and his wonderful but short career and I welled up in tears. I watched the press conference and saw manager Don Mattingly and team president David Samson speaking so highly of one of the team’s most talented homegrown players and a player who perfectly represented the club’s Cuban-American fanbase, and I could not help but cry. When Eduardo Perez teared up talking about Fernandez on SportsCenter, I was right there along with him. It turned out that seven years of writing has not prepared me for facing such a moment.
In working in medicine and facing the specter of death all of the time, I feel as though I am used to it more than most people. Even though I never met Jose Fernandez, however, it felt almost too close to home for me, and his passing struck hard. Though I did not know him personally, I did feel he was an important part of my life. He was on my television screen, pitching in my home every five days for half of a year for several seasons. He was always at the forefront of my mind as a writer, whether it was because I had to tell another story of his greatness on display or because he was on the road to recovery from Tommy John surgery. Jose Fernandez became someone important to me because of my job and my fandom, and until yesterday, it was a blessing to have him be a part of my life.
Jose Fernandez had a joie de vivre, an enjoyment of life, that few baseball players or people in general had. He wore his heart on his sleeve and that heart often displayed fiery emotion and intense happiness. Who could forget the celebratory GIF of our baseball era, when Fernandez cheered wildly for a Giancarlo Stanton game-tying homer?
There could be no more literal expression of joy than this. When Fernandez was not pumped up about a critical strikeout or pitch, he flashed an eternally brilliant smile that lit up a room. You could not help but join in on that wonderful expression. Even when he was injured and out for the season, Fernandez remained humble but never lost his smile or his optimism. He knew he would be back, and when he showed up at events or interviews in the television or radio booth and displayed that optimism, we all bought into it. Every Marlins encounter was made brighter by Fernandez’s presence, and you could tell that in how much more electric the Marlins Park crowd was when Fernandez took the mound. More than anything else about Jose Fernandez, I will miss that radiance of joy the most. Marlins Park will be a sadder place without his presence.
A part of me did think about the ramifications of his loss to the Marlins beyond the tragedy. How will all of the players manage? How will the team move on to stay competitive from here out? But the time for that is not now, nor is it soon after this awful event. These thoughts quickly left my mind when I saw the club in the press conference yesterday in the wake of the incident. My mind instead turned to the clubhouse and the players. If the fans are struggling with their emotions about Fernandez, I cannot imagine how the team is dealing with their loss internally. For us, Jose Fernandez was a friendly face, someone who popped into our lives every five days or so. For those players, he was a brother, practically family for some. He was a member of a tightly-knit group of guys who were closer than ever this year, it would seem. He was a beloved presence who vanished without so much as a goodbye. If I am shedding tears, they must be pouring them in private.
This is where having a strong, player-friendly presence like Don Mattingly may prove to be invaluable. Mattingly was beloved by Dodgers players in the past, and Marlins players praised him effusively this season. He is an undisputed leader in that clubhouse, and now more than ever those young men can use a guiding hand. I am sure Mattingly himself has not had to go through such a sudden disaster like this before, but his calming presence is more important than ever before. This is a team dealing with turmoil, and not the sort of silly squabbling they have dealt with in the past in Miami. This is a true and honest tragedy, and Mattingly’s role in helping this team weather the rest of the season with their heads held high is going to be critical.
The same can be said for the organization’s higher-ups. Say what you will about owner Jeffrey Loria and team president Samson, but when it comes to guys dealing with problems and adversity, conflicts rarely occur. Loria may not have been forthcoming with all of his players, but when guys like Derek Dietrich and Giancarlo Stanton needed help dealing with injuries or issues, the team was more than willing to be there. This extends to family as well. We all know about Fernandez’s story of his grandmother coming to the US to see him play, seeing him in an interview stage with Loria in tow. The organization helped with that process, and I am sure Fernandez was grateful for that. Now the team’s brass has to deal with not just one player’s struggles with personal issues, but an entire club’s problems. One of their brothers just died, and Loria, Samson and company will hopefully provide the help the team needs.
We all deal with tragedy in different ways. I am surprised at my own way of dealing with this. I am surprised that I can write so much and feel like I said so little. I am surprised that someone who never knew me and, sadly, whom I will never meet in person could affect me so much. But that was Jose Fernandez, that was the type of kid that he was. This 24-year-old could affect so many people with his never-ending energy and joy, and that could electrify a team, a crowd, a city, and a fanbase. Fernandez touched all of our lives in the Marlins universe in some way, because his reach was beyond just baseball. It was youth, it was exuberance, it was the Cuban-American connection with a fanbase dying for someone to represent a big part of them, it was the fight to recover from adversity in his story of arriving in Florida. Jose Fernandez had many facets of his life that represented honest struggle and sacrifice, from how he rescued his mother in one of their attempts to enter the country to how he stayed in prison in Cuba after another attempt. Family was such an integral part of his life and story that it had to resonate with you as a fan.
While all of that will never be forgotten, the Marlins will no longer have that smile flash from the dugout. We will never see that fire on the mound again. We will never get to exclaim in joy about another Defector pitch. All too soon, the radiant flame of life of Jose Fernandez has been snuffed out, taken away from his family, his friends, his teammates, and from us Marlins faithful. These things will live in memory now, but they will never grace us again. Goodbye Jose, we loved you, we loved having you here, and you will always be missed.