It’s been 24-hours now since the tragic news broke that one of baseball’s brightest young stars, Jose Fernandez, was gone.
Dead at the age of 24 in a horrific boating accident, along with two friends, off the coast of Miami. The baseball world was, and still is, stunned.
Jose Fernandez, by all accounts, was a players’ player. Not only did the right-handed starter for the Marlins have the “stuff” by means of a “wildly precise fastball and brutal curve ball,” according to the Miami Herald, but he also had the attitude that drew his colleagues from throughout the sport to him. And it wasn’t just the contemporaries – his teammates, former teammates and competitors, but baseball royalty as well.
I dont have the words to describe the pain feel for the loss of my friend Jose. Goodbye, my friend. pic.twitter.com/xvaa5z62RW
— David Ortiz (@davidortiz) September 25, 2016
Wow! I remember telling you how much of a fan I was of yours. I loved watching you pitch. My prayers and condolences go out to the Family pic.twitter.com/6QL18tGtW4
— Dwight Gooden (@DocGooden16) September 25, 2016
Baseball is an old game. It was borne from a man’s desire to compete, built on time-honored traditions and is sustained by them today.
But baseball is a sport about the future. We begin each season with wild hopes for the upcoming season for our teams during spring training. We watch the draft with bated breath, furiously searching for high school and college films on the young men our teams sign. We tune in to those fabricated conference room signings and the following press conferences to hear the newest prospect speak, to watch the delight on his parents’ faces knowing their son is on his way and to gauge the GM’s comments for any hint of what he thinks lies ahead. We track the progress of prospects through the farm system, and chide, sometimes ruthlessly, a team that refuses to bring up a rookie who we think – no, we KNOW – will help our team win.
Jose Fernandez was the future of baseball. And in an instant, in the darkness of night, that future is over.
And over in the cruelest of ways. He didn’t blow his arm out throwing a pitch he knew he had no business throwing, he didn’t screw up his knee fielding a routine grounder in Spring Training, he didn’t suffer the dreaded overuse injuries that plague young major leaguers these days. Those injuries, while tragic, are part of baseball. He died in a boating accident on an off day.
Baseball is also a game of irony.
And it is the irony surrounding Fernandez’ death that may be the hardest for the baseball world to accept. The 24 year-old, who according to media reports served prison time in his native Cuba in his youth for trying to escape the island, came to the US, in the dark, on a boat. From CBS Sports:
“It wasn’t until his fourth defection attempt in 2008, when he was 15, that Fernandez succeeded. While on a boat with others in the Gulf of Mexico, Fernandez jumped into the water in the darkness of night to save someone who had fallen overboard. He did not know that someone was his mother, but he jumped in anyway.”
Moreover, his team is in the midst of an incredibly tight race to make it into the National League playoffs. He was due to pitch Sunday afternoon against the Atlanta Braves. Given that the Braves were out of playoff contention and the Marlins were facing the Mets, who are very much alive in the race, Marlins manager Don Mattingly pushed Fernandez’ start back a day so that the ace could pitch in a game that mattered more and help lead his team to victory. Many wonder if Fernandez would have been on the water at all had his start never been pushed back.
And in marrying both history and irony in baseball, Fernandez isn’t the first MLB pitcher to die in a boating accident in Florida. His death yesterday brought back memories of the 1993 deaths of Cleveland Indians pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews, who were 27 and 31 respectively. There are many differences between their stories, but the tragedy of life lost too soon, and 749 brothers left to mourn, remains.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, a man known for sending daily notes of inspiration to his players and others in a tight circle of contacts inside and outside of baseball, offered this poignant statement about Jose Fernandez to MLB’s Adam Berry:
“It’s just sad. It’s so horribly sad on so many different levels that there’ll be no more of that, there’ll be no more of him, there’ll be no more of that emotion on the mound, that skill-set, that human being, that young man with such a gift, such a great smile,” Hurdle said.
It is that ever present smile on Fernandez’ face that will be missed the most. Not only did the game of baseball lose an already stellar pitcher who could have achieved untold success in the game, but baseball lost someone who had a true joy for life and a pure love of the game. And that is the greatest tragedy of all.