The preparations went ahead as usual. During the pre-game, some Toronto Blue Jays players slumped in their lockers wearing headphones. Others stretched on the floor. Someone turned up the volume on CNN. A couple of Jays drifted over.
The one paying the closest attention was Melvin Upton, Jr.
As Florida police explained the early details in the boating death of 24-year-old Miami Marlins starlet Jose Fernandez, Upton stared at the set fixedly.
“He was young. A competitor. The little time that I did talk to him – good guy. He always meant well,” Upton said, searching for words to describe a colleague he did not know.
Troy Tulowitzki, who recalled having a discussion with Fernandez just once during a pre-game batting practice, tried to do likewise.
“It doesn’t matter if guys in this room knew Jose, just from watching the game or the guy on highlights, you can see how much energy he played with, how much passion he had for the game.”
Everybody knows what the right thing to say is in these situations – good guy, sad day for baseball, I feel for his family.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Tulowitzki said. “I found myself just sitting around and thinking about it.”
Tulowitzki, an unusually solemn pro, said that last bit like it had taken him by surprise. That something had forced him to stop and think. On a game day.
Baseball itself is working against you here – someone is dead, but it wants to move on. One hundred and sixty-two games in 183 days does not offer the spare time to luxuriate in grief.
“Baseball is one of those games that is unforgiving in the sense that it keeps moving.” Blue Jays team president Mark Shapiro said. “There’s a comfort to that. But there’s also a cruelty.”
Shapiro knows better than most. He was a young executive in the Cleveland Indians organization when pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews were killed in an eerily similar 1993 boating mishap.
Baseball stopped for just a little while in Miami to honour Fernandez – a single game cancelled on Sunday. Then it would start moving there again.
Elsewhere, there were moments of silence. And then it pressed ahead.
Most are forgotten in this churn. Fernandez won’t be.
First, there was the skill. Fernandez was built perfectly for a power pitcher – tall and thickset. He won rookie of the year and finished third in National League Cy Young voting at only the age of 20. He already had a Hall of Fame curveball. It was the Doc Gooden-esque arrival of a Roger Clemens-esque talent.
Tommy John surgery cost Fernandez most of the next two seasons, but he returned brilliantly this year. Some players are good enough to anchor a team. Fernandez was the sort you construct an era around.
But he was more than just good. Baseball can be insufferably dour and self-important. Fernandez was the cure for that. No one ever seemed to be having more fun than he did on the field.
One of the short videos making the rounds in the wake of his death showed Fernandez snagging a hard-hit comebacker with an extension of his glove so quick, it’s a type of magic trick. The guy who hit it at him was Tulowitzki. You can see the then-Colorado Rockie say wonderingly, “Did you just catch that?” Mouth agape, Fernandez nods back at him maniacally, outrageously pleased with himself.
“That is something I will always remember,” Tulowitzki said, as if he meant it.
What will be remembered in Miami is how Fernandez seemed custom-designed to rescue this particular moribund franchise.
He was a Cuban who’d been jailed after several failed childhood defections. During his successful crossing, at night in high seas, he heard a body go into the water. He dived in not knowing whom he was trying to save. It was his mother. He was 15 at the time.
Later, he would declare her – along with his grandmother – the “loves of my life.”
It is one thing to have the gifts of a Ruth or a Mays. A few players in each generation have those. It is another to come armed with the force of character and a good enough backstory that you might conceivably alter the course of the game.
No one can bend that trajectory much. Only a few can move it at all. Fernandez seemed to be one of those sorts of players.
The legacy he leaves behind is one of thwarted heroism. Many great baseball players have become Achilles. Fernandez is Patroclus – cut down before he could do anything truly special. He’s in a small group of but-for-death sure things along with Len Bias, Pelle Lindbergh and Duncan Edwards.
The players who didn’t know him – all of them young and, to one extent or the other, indestructible in their own minds – could not find anything beyond clichés to describe what had happened. They were bereaved in that distant way we have when we hear of a stranger’s senseless death – the root of which is ‘Thank God it could not possibly be me.’
The older heads in the game were more contemplative. Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Fernandez’s death had put him in mind of its opposite.
“I’ve been trying to live that life for a while now,” Hurdle said. “I wasn’t always in that place. It just makes all the more sense when things like this happen. Be where your feet are. Enjoy the moment. There’ll be a day where there won’t be another day.”
Back in Toronto, they played a game. The Blue Jays won 4-3. They’ll play again today. And the day after.
Jose Fernandez will be folded into history, tucked up beside Lou Gehrig and Thurman Munson. Guys who went too soon. His is a more wistful passing, though.
Gehrig, Munson et al. got to enjoy their greatness, however briefly. Fernandez hadn’t yet touched his.
We won’t miss him, as such. Baseball doesn’t allow it. What we can do is feel cheated of what he might have been. That’s where his legend lies now.Report Typo/Error
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