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Former Marlins remember generational talent, tragic death of José Fernández

This massive feature from The Athletic includes interviews with those who were closest to Fernández, recounting contract negotiations with the Marlins and the boundless energy he had off the field.

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MLB: Miami Marlins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jayson Stark writes an extraordinarily detailed tear-jerker about the fascinating life and abrupt death of Marlins great José Fernández. You should subscribe to The Athletic and read it there.

If that’s not possible, I will do my best to summarize the article.

Who was José?

Stark spoke on the record with a handful of people within the baseball industry about him, including Marlins teammates, coaches and executives. Here are excerpts from those interviews where they describe the Cuban right-hander.

  • Mike Redmond: “He was just one of those kids where you always knew you could talk to him and he’d have something funny to say...José was one of those exciting young players that just make everybody better—and make the league better.”
  • Dan Jennings: “He loved people and they loved him. He was not only a tremendous talent. This was a guy who would embrace it for your city, embrace it for your organization and take you to a totally different level.”
Fernández and Jennings having a conversation in 2015
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
  • Chuck Hernandez: “When he walked in a room, you knew he was there. The whole place would light up.”
  • David Samson: “He thought he was invincible. He really did. His level of invincibility was greater than any single person I came into contact with in my 18 years in baseball.”
  • Jeff Mathis: “He loved everybody, and that’s one thing I’ll never forget. Nothing will ever shatter that.”

By the numbers

Jayson Stark’s best attribute as a storyteller is meticulously researching stats to complement his words. Here are a few about Fernández from this piece:

  • After getting two strikes on opposing hitters, he held them to a .129/.186/.179 slash line, with 457 more strikeouts (589) than hits (132)
  • All right-handed hitters combined to hit .180/.227/.267 (for context, Mathis—an infamously terrible hitter— is at .198/.258/.306 in his career)
  • He went 29-2 at Marlins Park with a 1.49 ERA, the greatest home record in modern history
  • Among all right-handed pitchers since World War II who had at least as many starts as him through their age-25 season, nobody has posted a better ERA-Plus (150 ERA+)

While nearing a return from Tommy John surgery during the spring of 2015, Stark reports that the Marlins offered a six-year, $40.7 million contract extension. It contained club options for 2021 and 2022 worth another $27 million total. Had both options been picked up, Fernández would’ve hit the open market at age 30.

Former Marlins executives David Samson (team president) and Dan Jennings (general manager) defend those figures four years later. They point out that, at the time, he would have received the largest-ever guaranteed deal for a pre-arbitration eligible pitcher.

But Fernández was a smart businessman with the utmost confidence in his abilities. He and agent Scott Boras were quick to reject it, salivating at the opportunity to reach free agency at age 26.

Boras and Fernández had more than the typical agent-athlete relationship
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The José Fernández Free Agent Winter That Never Was

That was Stark’s main motivation for publishing this story now: to project how much MLB free agency might have enriched a charismatic, bonafide ace just entering his prime.

Undeterred by all logic and recent trends, Boras says Fernández could’ve commanded a record-shattering deal of 11 years and $400 million had he continued on his current trajectory. (No pitcher in league history has been able to secure more than eight guaranteed years.)

Certainly, the Marlins—under the ownership of Jeffrey Loria, Bruce Sherman, whomever—wouldn’t be playing ball in that neighborhood. Those demands are more feasible for a large-market franchise.

However, Boras suggests Fernández and the Fish may have been able to figure something out beforehand:

“I think Jeffrey and I would have sat down. I think he and I would have done what we knew was best for José. I think we would have figured it out…He wanted José to stay in Miami, near his mother, his grandmother and the Cuban community. That was very important to him…

“I think José would have directed me to do something before he became a free agent. I think he would have directed me to do exactly what Stephen Strasburg did (and sign an extension before he ever reached the market).”

His demise

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The toxicology report from the 2016 boat accident that took the lives of Fernández and two other men detected alcohol and cocaine in his bloodstream.

Dan Jennings insists that nobody in Marlins leadership “never had any inkling” that Fernandez had serious issues with either. Pitching coach Chuck Hernandez could tell that “some things started going in a bad direction,” but likewise underestimated the severity of the situation.

In the aftermath, Fernández’s grandmother, mother, girlfriend and then-unborn daughter were left with very modest financial support. It is estimated that the MLB Players’ Association paid out $1.5 million total from a life-insurance policy and accidental death and dismemberment coverage. The league itself provided the Marlins with $700,000, which they used to establish a trust for his daughter’s future education. And that’s it.

Going against Boras’ recommendation, Fernández declined to invest in more substantial insurance. Agents are not allowed to make such decisions without authorization from the client.

“He didn’t believe in it,” Boras says.

Loria says the loss was “painful” and “crushing” and permanently changed him. He admits it’s why he put the franchise up for sale the following year.

Stark concludes with this:

He was brilliant. He was flawed. He was a ray of sunshine. He was lost in the dark. We will never know where the highway would have led him—in baseball, in life, in his Free Agent Winter That Never Was. But there was something about him. Something unique and vibrant. Something we run across all too rarely in this world.

The Marlins have recently acquired a pitcher who loosely approximates José’s talent and another who shares his heritage. Unfortunately, nobody will ever fill the void in our hearts.