If you meet me in person, I’m a bit reserved. In spite of the crazy costumes I don for my school’s Spirit Week, I don’t want the spotlight on me. Sure, I get excitable at times, but I’m the one that finds more value in meaningful conversations than doing something outlandish like, say skydiving.
This made it interesting when my last high school girlfriend shared an observation. “It’s so much fun watching you play baseball.” I laughed. My senior year, I appeared in two games. One was as a defensive replacement, the other as a pinch-hitter, and both were away games so she didn’t even see me play.
Nevertheless, she pressed on. “You just have so much fun on the field. It’s like you’re a different person. You’re always laughing, joking with your teammates, you just seem really happy.”
After that talk with her, I paid more attention to how I acted on the field and I realized that she was absolutely right. Off the field, I was Jamie Hyneman, stoic and unwilling to get my shirt dirty. On the field, I morphed into Adam Savage, unafraid of getting messy and announcing his presence wherever he went.
We don’t know what kind of person Jose Fernandez was off the field, but the moment we saw him in the dugout or between the foul lines, we saw the happiest man on Earth.
Jose Fernandez made his major league debut at the start of the 2013 season as a 20-year old when the Miami Marlins made the shocking decision to promote him straight from High-A. This was unheard of, even for a player that dominated two levels of A-ball with an ERA under two, more than a strikeout per inning pitched and only two home runs allowed in over 130 innings. Many thought the Marlins were crazy to have him skip two full levels of the minor leagues, but the move paid dividends immediately as Fernandez not only made the National League All-Star team but also was named Rookie of the Year.
Pitchers with blazing fastballs and fall-off-the-table breaking pitches are typically said to possess electric stuff. With Fernandez, he was the goddamn power plant. A fastball that sat in the mid-90s with ease, a slurvy curveball (or slider, no one seemed to agree what it was) that swept across the plate in the blink of an eye, and a change-up that disappeared into the dirt was all Fernandez needed to embarrass you at the plate. Armed with above-average control, “good morning, good afternoon, goodnight” was a common phrase as he would pump three strikes right past you as he pleased.
However, it wasn’t just the repertoire on the mound that caught our gaze. Additionally, it was the undying enthusiasm for the game that Fernandez displayed day in and day out, regardless of if he was on the mound. A defector from Cuba that came to America as a teenager, it was as if Fernandez woke up everyday thankful that he was here instead of there.
This is and always will be my favorite gif of Fernandez. Yes, it was a go-ahead home run by Stanton that got Fernandez off the hook for the loss, but it occurred in a season when the Marlins were terrible. That didn’t matter to him. Every game was a joy.
The stories always say that Jose bounced from teammate to teammate every single game. Yeah, he was looking for attention, but he had no problem speaking to anyone about anything. If you got tired of him, he moved on to the next guy until he got tired as well. Rinse, repeat. Do the same tomorrow.
While watching the Marlins broadcast on Monday, I heard that Fernandez was one of the first players to embrace Barry Bonds as their new hitting coach. Remember, despite becoming the home run king, despite hitting an absurd .276/.480/.565 with 28 home runs as a 42-year old, Bonds was blackballed from baseball due to his toxic personality. After taking some time off, he returned to the major leagues a different person and Fernandez’s outgoing personality caused him to talk to Barry immediately. The broadcast noted that Bonds still had remnants of his blunt persona and Jose actually enjoyed it. In Bonds’ eyes, Fernandez may have been one of the best pitchers in the majors, but he always could become better. Instead of infuriating Fernandez, Bonds’ words challenged him.
In Fernandez’s final start last Tuesday, he had thrown seven scoreless innings against the Washington Nationals. Upon completion of the 7th, manager Don Mattingly greeted Fernandez in the dugout. Perhaps he was notifying Fernandez that he was done for the day. Maybe he was just asking how he felt. Either way, Fernandez blew right past him. Though the viewers couldn’t see Fernandez’s lips, the nod from Mattingly was clear. Jose was pitching the 8th and not even his manager could stop him. The fact that opposing hurler Tanner Roark had allowed just one run himself over seven innings didn’t matter either. At 95 pitches, Fernandez knew he could push himself.
The 8th inning wasn’t as clean as any Marlin or fan had hoped. True, Clint Robinson struck out to lead off the inning. But, Wilson Ramos blooped a single to center and Brian Goodwin grounded another into right field. Pitching coach Juan Nieves came out to talk to Fernandez as the 8th and 9th spots in the order were due up. Whether or not he needed it, Fernandez settled down and struck out Danny Espinosa on four pitches, culminating with a 90 MPH change-up. Next up was pinch-hitter Daniel Murphy, the possible National League MVP, but Fernandez needed just four pitches to induce a grounder to second base to end the threat. This time, the scene in the dugout after Fernandez’s arrival had a much different tone.
Imagine Bonds doing that when he was still playing. That was the power of Fernandez.
We all know how Fernandez passed. It’s awful to think this, but with the Coast Guard suggesting speed was a factor, I often wonder if his exuberant personality wasn’t a contributor to the boat crashing into the rock jetty outside Miami. It’s a shame, that one’s greatest strength could have also been his tragic flaw. Baseball lost not only one of its best players but also one of its greatest ambassadors. Though we’ve also suffered the losses of Oscar Taveras, Nick Adenhart, Cory Lidle, and others, I can’t help but feel that this death is of a magnitude similar to Roberto Clemente.
I’m not going to pretend that I knew Fernandez in any form, but I found it hauntingly poetic that I not only got to cover his final start but also the team’s first game without him. The game on Monday was heartbreaking, watching the pregame tribute, the entire team wearing Jose’s #16 jersey, the multiple players sobbing through pregame and even up until first pitch, to Dee Gordon mimicking Fernandez’s batting stance at the first pitch in the bottom of the first, then hitting a leadoff home run only to burst into tears during his home run trot, and the crowd remaining somber and only politely cheering until the Marlins turned the game into a blowout. Somehow, the healing will begin and we will all move on.
Rest in peace, Jose. You made the game of baseball better.