Jose Fernandez was arrested and sent to jail three times before he was 15 years old. In the U.S. the top crimes committed by 13-15-year-olds are theft, vandalism, alcohol and curfew violations. Jose Fernandez however, was thrown in jail three times for trying to escape Cuba. Jose was arrested for trying to get to freedom. On his fourth and final attempt, Jose was up talking to the boat’s captain as they sailed towards Mexico. “Stupid Big Waves,” as Jose described them, were crashing all around them when suddenly one of them hit the boat especially hard. “Somebody fell out of the boat. I didn’t know who it was. So I jumped into the water and I was trying to get to who it was. And when I got close, I saw it was my mom. I was pretty shocked.”
Jose Fernandez died in a boat crash off the coast of Miami early in the morning on September 25th, 2016, the day after he was scratched from a start and pushed back to face the Mets a game later. The Marlins canceled their Sunday game against Atlanta and their next game would be against New York, the game Fernandez was pushed back to start.
The day leading up to that game was excruciating for everyone. How can you play baseball? How can you even think about playing baseball at a time like this? It seemed like everyone had a Jose story to tell that day, all of them about how this young phenom loved the game and loved life. Stories about his pregnant girlfriend and his latest Instagram posts were flooding in and Jose Fernandez autographs soared to astronomical prices on eBay. The last thing on your mind was baseball.
That whole day I had the recurring memory of watching Jose shag fly balls in the outfield at Citi Field earlier in the year. I had gotten there early for batting practice, as I usually do, and Jose was in Centerfield with none other than Ichiro Suzuki, my childhood favorite. The two of them kept on going back and forth trying to outdo each other with every catch they made. Ichiro threw his glove in the air to try and knock it down, and Jose would attempt the same on the next ball hit in their direction. At one point, Jose put his glove on the other hand and made the catch opposite handed, took the ball with his left hand and threw it to the Ball Boy. Ichiro was not going to be shown up by a pitcher and switched the glove to his throwing hand. Ichiro makes the next catch and when he goes to throw the ball, unfamiliar with the mechanics, he rifles it straight into the ground in front of him. I have never heard anyone laugh louder than Jose Fernandez that day. Keep in mind that this was happening in Centerfield, while I was all the way in left.
Hall of Fame Brooklyn Dodgers Catcher Roy Campanella once said, “You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too.” That was Jose Fernandez. What everyone’s story had was an example of how Jose exemplified the Little League spirit in all of us, that little boy who loved the game so much and got so much joy out of a wearing a uniform with his name on the back. The stories of Jose getting a chair to watch the post-game fireworks after getting the win, or when he asked a crying Marlins fan for their autograph to calm them down. Jose personified the amazing human nature the game is born from, he put the “play” in “Play Ball!”
David Ortiz had a great story. This being his final All Star Game everyone had the consensus that Ortiz should hit a home run. It’s a nice tip of the cap and a great send off to one of the best clutch hitters to play the game. “You know what, I was supposed to hit a home run in my second at-bat,” Ortiz said, laughing. “My boy told me he was gonna throw me nothing but fastballs, and the first pitch was a changeup. We’ve got to discuss that later. That’s why I was like, ‘Hey, I thought you were gonna throw nothing but fastballs. What happened?” Gotta give it up for Jose doing the old switcheroo.
All the stories aside, Jose’s death is not the #2 moment from 2016, no way, but it does involve Jose’s last magic trick.
After the emotional pregame ceremony and the GUT-WRENCHING rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the Mets and Marlins squared off. In the bottom of the first inning, Dee Gordon strode to the plate wearing Jose’s batting helmet. The first pictures of that really hit me were of Dee Gordon alone at the pitcher’s mound the day Jose passed away. The silence in that stadium, the enormity of the loss and the weight of the world on Dee’s shoulders. Watching Dee Gordon pray behind the #16 painted on the mound will be an image I will never be able to get out of my head. It was clear that Jose had an impact on Dee, both as a friend and a ballplayer. Gordon stepped into the left side of the batter’s box and assumed Jose’s batting stance and took the first pitch. As he stepped around to the right side of the box, his normal side, Gary Cohen commented that Fernandez was actually a pretty good hitter, too. In his 2013 Rookie of the Year campaign, Jose even hit a home run, the first of his career. As Gary Cohen talks about this Bartolo Colon takes the sign for a 2-0 two-seamer and fires it in.
Dee Gordon is not a home run hitter. In his six years in the big leagues, Dee Gordon has NINE home runs. Before he stepped up to the plate, Dee Gordon had not hit a single round-tripper all season, that is until he hit one into the upper deck off Colon in that first inning.
Whether or not you believe in a higher power or in angels or spirits or an afterlife or whatever you want, it’s hard not to deny its existence after Dee Gordon parked that fastball. The shot of Dee Gordon sobbing rounding the bases hit every baseball fan in the chest and instantly someone was chopping onions in every home across the country. As Dee crossed home plate, you could see he was overcome with emotion, he was barely able to walk back to the dugout. He fell into the arms of Barry Bonds, the Marlins hitting coach and then into Christian Yelich and Giancarlo Stanton’s. Finally, after making his way through the dugout, he found Derek Dietrich who put his arm around Dee and said “That was Jose, baby!’ The tears streaming down both of their faces. “That was Jose, baby!”
Whether or not you believe in a higher power, it’s hard to believe that Jose didn’t carry that ball over the fence. In his post game interview, Dee Gordon said “I ain’t never hit a ball that far, even in BP. I told the boys, ‘If you all don’t believe in God, you better start.’ For that to happen today…we had some help. I just hope he’s happy. I hope he’s good because we love him so much.” The skeptics were out in full force on the internet after the game. People calling the pitch a gift, that Colon laid one out there for Gordon, that it was all a sham. FIRST OFF, have you ever seen Bartolo Colon pitch? Bartolo’s main pitch is a two-seam fastball with lots of movement and if he has an off day, he gets no movement. This means he’s tossing batting practice. If Noah Syndergaard was pitching and he threw an 89 MPH four-seam down the pipe, then maybe we could call this a gift.
I think we have to err on the side of the fantastic when looking at this home run. To think that they least powerful hitter on the team could send one to the upper deck is not crazy, it would take a herculean amount of effort from Dee Gordon. His swing is effortless as if his bat weighed nothing. It was magic. It was Jose.
A month after his death it was reported that the autopsy done after his death found traces of alcohol and cocaine in his system. Shouts of condemnation and calls for the Marlins to revoke their retirement of number 16. While I understand the motive, I disagree with the sentiment. Jose Fernandez died in a tragic accident and lived life to the fullest every chance he got. It is far more important to remember the joy Jose gave to the game of baseball. That’s the legacy he left us, that the fire we should keep burning.
I have only cried during two baseball games; the Game 4 of the 2004 World Series and that Monday night game in Miami. I loved watching Jose pitch because every breath he took was full of excitement, every pitch brimming with youthful exuberance, and every smile filled with love. Jose Fernandez was the living embodiment of how it feels to play the beautiful game of baseball. He will be missed, but he will not be forgotten.