Baseball is life. The rest is just details.
– Seen on T-shirts at Major League ballparks all over the country
I’m a baseball fan. As a kid I loved playing the game. Today I like watching it – in person or on TV – listening to it on the radio, reading about it, talking about it … just being around the game and people who enjoy it like I do. I grew up a St. Louis Cardinals fan, then adopted the Marlins as my second team about two seconds after it was announced back in 1991 we were getting a Major League franchise in Miami. I’ve raised our kids to be baseball fans, taking them to as many games over the years, Spring Training as well as regular season, as time and money would allow.
So maybe you’ll believe me when I tell you I took the news of Jose Fernandez’s death (along with two of his friends) pretty hard, like most of the rest of Miami. I learned of it just over an hour before our worship service last Sunday morning … and simply could not accept it. He was too young, too good, too full of life, too much a part of the Marlins and sports in Miami and just life in South Florida overall to simply be gone, like that. It just couldn’t be true … but it was.
Over the years the Marlins have had two players who moved the attendance needle here at home: Dontrelle Willis and Jose Fernandez. Both had a tremendous, infectious enthusiasm for the game, huge smiles, both gave back generously to the community with their time and money. And Jose was a Cuban immigrant, fluently bilingual, so representative of this city it was as if Hollywood created him to star in a Latin American version of “The Natural.” Except ….
Except he doesn’t get to have the Hollywood ending. No walking away on top, no being called “the best there ever was,” no spending the rest of his years with his one true love … and their child. No nothing, except this gaping wound oozing “what might have been.”
If you’re not a baseball fan, try this: imagine if Dan Marino had died during his fourth year with the Dolphins … or Dwyane Wade during his fourth season with the Heat. That’s how this feels to baseball fans in Miami and beyond.
And if you’re not a sports fan at all … just think of any friendly, outgoing, hard-working young person you know who just turned 24, dying suddenly and leaving behind a mother, a grandmother and a girlfriend with a baby on the way … tragic, no matter how you look at it.
By now you know his story: Cuban kid who tried– and failed – three times to flee the socialist paradise that is the Castros’ Cuba; the third time ending up in one of Cuba’s notorious jails for two months with hardened criminals, including murderers, where he said he was treated “like an animal”; finally succeeding on a fourth try, along the way saving a woman who had fallen overboard … who turned out to be his mother; going to high school in Tampa where he did not know the language, but … but because God had gifted him with a rocket launcher for a right arm, he found his way onto a baseball diamond, eventually signing with the Miami Marlins at 19 as their first-round draft pick. He would go on to pitch for the National League in the All Star game and win Rookie of the Year in 2013, and pitch again in this year’s All-Star game in San Diego. Even in his abbreviated career he owns statistics and records for Marlins’ pitchers that may never be broken.
But it wasn’t just his talent or his accomplishments on the field that made him so beloved in Miami and to the baseball world in general: it was his joy in playing the game. A game millions and millions of American kids and kids all over the world play just for the love of it, but which only a tiny fraction of a percentage can play well enough to play at the Major League level … and hardly any as well as Jose did. To be sure, the ones that do get paid obscene amounts of money for it – for playing a kids’ game – but even so, many seem to treat it only as that: a paycheck. A big, fat, oversized paycheck.
They forget the simple pleasure of the game: see ball, hit ball; run hard, touch ‘em all; throw ball, catch ball; and the team that does that the best wins the game. Do it well enough over 162 games, and then another 11-12 times (depending on whether you are a Wild Card team or a Division winner) and you hold up the World Series trophy in a champagne-soaked locker room on national TV one night in late October.
Jose never forgot. He never forgot to have fun playing the game, whether he was making opposing batters – grown men, the best in the world, many of whom had been playing professionally longer than he’d been in the United States – look silly trying to hit his pitches, or at the plate himself where he took great pride in being not just a good-hitting pitcher, but a good hitter, period. He smiled, he laughed, he rooted uproariously for his teammates, he hugged them and his coaches … he made them smile and laugh and cheer and hug him back and remember it was a game. Even Barry Bonds, a notorious grouch and virtually unapproachable during his playing days, smiled, laughed, hugged and even kissed Jose on the head repeatedly in the dugout. In front of people.
That’s the kind of person Jose Fernandez was … and that’s what we lost in the overnight hours last Saturday night at the jetty at Government Cut. His family, his teammates, the Cuban community, Miami, baseball, fans, everybody.
I’m still going to follow baseball, still going to go to games as time and money allow, still going to enjoy it. I’m just not going to enjoy it as much without Jose.
I hope he was ready. By the mercies of God, I hope he was as prepared to meet his Maker as he was to pitch every five days.
I hope you are, too.
After all, baseball isn’t really all there is to life, and the rest isn’t really just details.
Jose Fernandez, RIP.