The tragic and sudden death of Jose Fernandez is looming large over what is normally a very exciting time in baseball. But now, baseball doesn’t seem as important as it once did. Indeed, the passing of Jose Fernandez has done a few things. Firstly, it’s reminded everyone of how fragile a human life can be, and how quickly things can drastically change, even for those that seem larger than life.
When I found out about the Jose’s passing, I initially saw it from an unreliable resource, and I thought, “surely not…” I began to try to find out whether or not it was factual, and unfortunately, several minutes after that, I saw Ken Rosenthal and Marlins’ beat writers confirm that tragedy, indeed, had stricken.
Now that we’re a few days removed from the horrors the befell us in the early hours of Sunday morning, I, as well as everyone else, has had a little bit time to process this great loss, even if it still stings as it’s just happened. While there is no greater loss in this situation than the loss that Jose’s family and friends, including the entire Miami Marlins organization, are facing, it’s undeniable that this incident has greatly impacted all of baseball, including the fans.
Baseball fans are indeed are apart of a community. We’re a baseball family, if you will. This untimely death is no more tragic than other baseball deaths that we’ve experienced, nor is it any more tragic than the young people that die everyday, but for us, this is different. Not only was Jose dominant on the mound, he was dominant off the field, as well. Everyone felt as though they knew Jose, whether it’s because they are Marlins fans, residents of Miami, or fans of baseball; there’s no denying that he became synonymous with the game of baseball. Certainly, this hit the baseball nation harder than anything in awhile. Of course there have been tragic baseball deaths before, including stars like Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson. While both of those are undeniably tragic, they weren’t quite the same circumstances, given Jose’s age.
While listening to Effectively Wild, a podcast through BaseballProspectus.com, Sam Miller, along with co-host Ben Lindbergh, made some very good points. We shouldn’t look at the career of Jose Fernandez and think, “imagine what could’ve been.” Rather, we should view it as what was in the career of Jose Fernandez. He was absolutely dominant in the time that he was in the big leagues, reaching the peak, or very near to the peak, that a pitcher in Major League Baseball performs. Ever since Jose Fernandez debuted, he was arguably one of the best pitchers in the game. He complimented his blistering fastball with a curveball that could make even the best hitters look foolish.
It’s not just the fact that Jose was a brilliant pitcher on the mound that makes this event so hard to digest, but it’s also the kind of person he was. By all accounts, Jose exuded happiness, sometimes staying in the dugout after road games in order to watch firework shows. On his Instagram account, he posted a video of him in Atlanta watching a concert after a game between the Braves and Marlins. He loved the game, and he loved life. He had fun playing the game, embodying the spirit and whimsy that a child experiences when playing the game. Of course, it was his job, but it was much more than that to him. You could see it on his face when he was sitting in the dugout, or even when the benches cleared. One of my favorite pictures that surfaced recently shows the Braves and Marlins having an altercation on the field. All the players, except Jose, were grayed out, while they kept Jose in full color. In this photo, he was smiling and laughing, enjoying himself, never taking anything too seriously. He just wanted to have fun, no matter what was happening.
By now, everyone is well aware of Jose’s attempts, and ultimately successful, defection from Cuba. Eduardo Perez of ESPN talked about how, on the boat coming across the ocean to land in Florida, a woman fell off the boat during the night. Without knowing who it was, Jose jumped from the boat, at age 15, in order to save the woman. He did save her, and it turned out to be his mother.
The most prevalent reaction I’ve seen is sadness, of course, anger, and confusion. People are often left asking, “Why?” Why does it seem like the very best of people are taken away far before when it seems like they should be? Again, while I’m not comparing our loss to the loss of Jose’s family and friends, it feels as though we’ve lost a friend. We’ve lost a brilliant pitcher and a brilliant person, a friend.
While the pain will eventually subside, everyone will look for ways to console themselves. For friends and family, it will be the memories of Jose, and how charismatic he was. For the Marlins, it will be each other; they’ll have to rely on each other and offer a shoulder to each other. For us baseball fans, while we’re not directly personally involved, we are involved personally in a way that it felt like we knew him because we seemed to know his personality so well. For us, we’ll likely seek comfort in statistics, as we so often do. We’ll see how dominant Jose was because of traditional stats, like ERA, and because of sabermetric stats, like FIP. We’ll see that Jose was one of the best pitchers ever in terms of age, and we’ll see that he was on a Hall of Fame trajectory and that he was potentially one of the best pitchers of all time.
Someone mentioned, while we as baseball fans may seek comfort in reviewing statistics, Jose was preparing to father a child, but all that child will now have is a BaseballReference.com page for their father. It’s an unbelievable burden for a family to bear, but even more so considering there’s an unborn child in the mix. Again, it’s events like these that makes baseball seem unimportant. It’s times like these where baseball seems pointless. After all, it is just a game. It’s never more painfully obvious as when someone tragically dies. In the end, we are all human, and the game of baseball serves to only distract us from the everything else in life that’s terrible: wars, financial crises, starvation among so many people, etc. Every once in awhile, a brilliant pitcher, a wonderful person, and a beautiful soul comes along to further distract us from real life. And Jose did this perfectly. He embodied what we want in the game. He was someone who loved the game, loved playing it, and had fun doing it. That’s what we want, someone who’s charismatic and entertaining. But, of course, this isn’t about us, but the aforementioned shows why Jose was so important to the game and was so important to people in real life. He didn’t just have an impact on the field. He had an impact on the people that watch the games – he helped to make all of our lives better by pitching and by being himself. He truly changed our lives and that is the defining characteristic of someone that will be greatly remembered in the annals of time, and hopefully not just baseball history, but history in general. It is my hope that non-baseball fans know, and will continue to learn about, Jose Fernandez, and not just those in the Latino community.
Truly, Jose Fernandez was one of the few wonderful ambassadors of the game. He impacted the outcome of games on the field, and impacted lives of fans off the field. I saw someone point out the cruel irony that this one life can give to all of us; they said, and I’m paraphrasing, “…Jose began a new life by coming over on a boat, and he unfortunately exited in the same manner.” It’s a crude way to view the circumstances, but life so often crushes us with instances like this. There were few players who had as tough of a road to the major leagues as Jose did, and he was taken painfully early from his family, his friends, the baseball community, and the world.
Rest easy, Jose Fernandez. You were truly special and will be greatly missed.