José Fernández would have been first to tell you that baseball is, at heart, just a game.
He always had a smile on his face. It didn’t matter whether he was dicing up hitters with his filthy curveball, cheering on his best friend and teammate Giancarlo Stanton in the Home Run Derby, or even just looking silly at the plate. Nobody played the game of baseball with as much pure, childlike joy as José Fernández did.
Perhaps this is because all of the other challenges he faced in his life. From early on, Fernández knew he wanted to play baseball for the rest of his life, and he knew making his way to America was the best way to achieve that goal. Fernández made four attempts at defecting from Cuba as a teenager. He failed three times, spending months in prison. His failures did not deter him. His love for the game and desire to improve his family’s quality of life pushed him to keep trying to get out of Cuba. On his fourth attempt, Fernández made it, although not without problems. While on a boat to Mexico, a woman fell overboard into stormy waters. In spite of being a teenager with little experience in the water, Fernández instinctively dove overboard and saved the woman, only to discover that she was his own mother.
Fernández made it to America in 2008. Once here, he struggled to adapt. Like most defectors, he didn’t speak much English and was overwhelmed by all of the technology and culture that shape the American lifestyle. While at an airport in Tampa, a serviceman entered a bathroom to find Fernández on the floor, searching for the handle that would make the automatic toilet flush.
To Fernández , baseball was the easy part of living in this country.
Fernández was part of a new group of players that are challenging the old-school notion that there is no fun in baseball. He played with flair, excitement, and a chip on his shoulder, but most of all, he played with incredible talent. José Fernández was a damn good ballplayer. No pitcher had struck out batters at the same rate he did. Fernández’s Fielding-Independent Pitching and Earned Run Average Plus put him among the all-time greats. The former first-round pick took the baseball world by storm, bursting onto the scene quickly. At 20 years old, Fernández compiled an incredible 2.19 ERA over 170 innings, while leading the National League with the fewest hits per 9 innings. He was almost unanimously named NL Rookie of the Year and came in third for Cy Young voting.
Fernández’s death shocked the sports world. On Sunday, Fernández and two other friends accidentally drove full speed into a jetty off the coast of Florida while boating. Officials found their bodies at around 3:00 am, noting that Fernández most likely died on impact. Fernández was 24 years old and had just announced that he and his girlfriend were soon expecting a baby girl. The social media world exploded, with players upon players expressing their love for Fernández and grief over his loss. Videos poured in of Marlins players and fans crying over his death. If one thing is for sure, it’s that Fernández was loved very much.
A player of his ability and youth has never died so suddenly before. The Marlins were stunned, as were the residents of Miami. The home game against the Atlanta Braves was cancelled. However, they still had a regular season game scheduled for Monday, and decided to honor Fernández as best as they could.
One of the reasons we love sports is the emotions that come with being a fan. Monday night’s game was definitely not lacking in this department. The Marlins took the field with everyone wearing Fernández’s number 16 jersey. Even players from other teams hung Fernández jerseys in their dugout. A moment of silence was held, followed by a somber horn rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Tears were shed.
In the bottom of the first inning, leadoff hitter Dee Gordon came up for his at-bat. Usually a left-handed hitter, Gordon took the first pitch from the right side while wearing Fernández’s helmet and mirroring his load. He switched over to his normal left-handed batter’s box on the next pitch.
Dee Gordon is not a power hitter. He’s known for his ability to get on base and then steal bases. He’s a great player, but nobody expects him to hit for power.
However, on the next pitch, Gordon took a big hack. He swung out of his shoes, and Bartolo Colon’s 85 mile-per-hour pitch was smashed out of the park. Colon didn’t turn around.
Gordon sprinted around the bases, trying to compose himself. He failed. Tears streamed down his face by the time he touched the plate and gestured to heaven, telling Fernández that he did that for him. He walked back to the dugout, where his teammates embraced him. When asked about his home run, Gordon let his emotions take over, saying, “I told the boys, ‘If you all don’t believe in God, you all might as well start.’ I ain’t ever hit a ball that far, even in BP. We had some help.” It was Gordon’s first home run of the season.
The Marlins went on to win the game 7-3. They had completed their tribute to Fernández. It’s hard to watch games like these and think the baseball gods did not have a hand in Gordon’s home run. For a team and a city that was hurting, they have found solace that Fernández was looking down on them, jumping up and down with his trademark smile, celebrating Gordon’s home run.