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Nightengale: Jose Fernandez, Embodiment of American Dream, Had Irrepressible Spirit

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Jose Fernandez. By Arturo Pardavila III on Flickr [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Nobody wanted to play baseball Sunday.

Nobody wanted to watch games, listen or even care. Really, all anyone wanted to do was mourn the death of Jose Fernandez, the effervescent 24-year-old Miami Marlins ace who was one of the game’s greatest pitchers with perhaps the most boundless future of anyone.

The shock of Fernandez’s death in an overnight boating accident was evident in every clubhouse in baseball, with grown men weeping, others sitting numb in front of their lockers, everyone in utter disbelief.

Marlins manager Don Mattingly sobbed during the Marlins’ news conference that ended abruptly when Michael Hill, the club’s president of baseball operations, broke down.

Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz instructed the Tampa Bay Rays to cancel their retirement tribute before his final game at Tropicana Field

Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, a Cuban refugee like Fernandez, answered a couple of questions by his locker before the game but was unable to continue, burying his head into his hands.

For a young man who has been in this country for only nine years, and in the big leagues for four, it’s remarkable how his persona resonated with everyone, whether you loved him or just knew him from watching on TV.

Fernandez was that special, and he was that beloved in the South Florida community. He had a passion for life, with a personality that transcended culture, race, religion and political beliefs.

Baseball has had its share of tragedy. There were car accidents that claimed St. Louis Cardinals rookie Oscar Taveras in 2014 and young Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart in 2009. The plane crash that killed New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle in 2006. The boating accident that killed Cleveland Indians pitchers Tim Crew and Steve Olin in 1993. In the 1970s we lost Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente — perhaps the game’s greatest humanitarian — and New York Yankees All-Star catcher Thurman Munson in plane wrecks.

This one just felt different.

Maybe because never had a younger, brighter star, with a résumé already establishing himself as one of the game’s greatest, left us so quickly.

Fernández pitching for the Miami Marlins in 2016 spring training. By slgckgc on Flickr (Original version)UCinternational (Crop) - Originally posted to Flickr as "Jose Fernandea"Cropped by UCinternational, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47944418
Fernández pitching for the Miami Marlins in 2016 spring training.
By slgckgc on Flickr (Original version)UCinternational (Crop) – Originally posted to Flickr as “Jose Fernandea”Cropped by UCinternational, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47944418

The only pitcher in modern baseball history who made as many starts as Fernandez and had a career ERA lower than his 2.58 is Los Angeles Dodgers three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw.

Fernandez struck out 253 batters in 1821/3 innings this season. He struck out 34.3% of the 737 batters he faced; only Hall of Famers Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez boasted a higher percentage.

He was that gifted of a pitcher, and yet his personality exceeded his talent.

“Sadly,” Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria said, “the brightest lights are often the ones that extinguish the fastest.”

This is a young man who was grateful for every day he woke up in this country.

You don’t appreciate freedom, he would love to tell you, unless you walked in his shoes.

He wanted to be a big-league pitcher when he was 8, but Communist Cuba has a way of suppressing those dreams. Fernandez refused to give up. Three times he tried to escape, and three times he was sent back to Cuba, even spending months in a Cuban prison at 14.

When he finally made it close to the shores of Mexico, the choppy waters overturned their boat and he heard a splash and screams of a passenger falling overboard. He dived into the water. It turned out to be his mother. After swimming for 15 minutes, he saved her life, too.

“His story was well told and will be told forever,” Marlins President David Samson said. “Jose is a member of this family for all time, and his story is representative of hope and love and faith. No one will let that story die.”

Fernandez wasn’t just a ballplayer who was two years away from possibly becoming the richest pitcher in baseball history. He became part of the fabric of baseball. The game needed him. He had the personality and aura that baseball needs to transcend generations.

Handsome and bilingual, Fernandez was blooming into a Little Papi of baseball, with players and fans gravitating toward him. They loved him, and he loved them back. Even on the days he was pitching, he would sign autographs on the way back to the dugout before games.

Sunday’s visuals at Marlins Park told more about how teammates regarded him than the news conference. Alone or in pairs, Marlins players slowly walked to the mound where his hat laid, with No.16 etched into the mound, kneeling and praying, wiping away tears. Christian Yelich and Justin Bour had their arms around one another paying their respects. Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins’ biggest star, stood emotionless at the news conference, but the angst on his face exuded devastation.

He couldn’t speak, like a lot of Fernandez’s closest friends and acquaintances around baseball, instead writing of an “overwhelming shock” in a poignant Instagram post..

Details of the accident are trickling in. Fernandez, traveling with two friends on the boat in the late evening and early morning hours alongside South Beach, was flipped when it hit an unlit jetty. The crash’s impact, not the bay waters, killed Fernandez and his two close friends, police said.

There will be autopsies and specifics will emerge of what actually happened, but it really doesn’t matter. It won’t bring back Fernandez. He leaves behind his mother and grandmother, whose names were tattooed on his biceps, and girlfriend.

He also will never meet his daughter.

Fernandez, who was so excited about becoming a father, took a picture of his girlfriend — now five months pregnant — on the beach last week. Fernandez, who gained U.S. citizenship last year, told teammates they were having a girl.

There will be a funeral and memorial services in time. The Marlins likely will retire his number. Major League Baseball and the Marlins certainly will honor him next summer when Miami hosts the All-Star Game.

Those tributes were supposed to happen 20 years from now, when Fernandez was done playing, after winning Cy Young Awards, pitching in World Series games, possibly on the way to entrance into the Hall of Fame.

“I saw a better talent than I was lose his life,” Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez said on TBS.

Fernandez pitched the last game of his life Tuesday against the Washington Nationals. He was nothing short of sensational. He gave up three hits and struck out 12 in eight innings, retiring 21 in a row at one point. Mattingly called it the finest performance of Fernandez’s season. Fernandez corrected him. He called it the finest start of his career.

The performance raised Fernandez’s career home record to 29-2 with a 1.49 ERA. No pitcher in baseball has ever had a greater winning percentage with at least 40 starts. And only Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (1.37) had a lower ERA at his home ballpark.

I happened to be there to see it and I saw him the next day, and we waved to one another as he was talking to Nationals players during batting practice.

It’s unfathomable that none of us will ever see him again.

“What Jose would want is for everyone to remember what he stood for,” Samson said. “And tell the story to your kids and grandkids what it is to fight for freedom. What it is to fight for what you believe in. To do what’s right, no matter what the obstacles are, whether they are political or social or athletic.

“When you honor No.16, when you do anything in your life, you do it right, and you do it hard. That’s the ultimate honor you can pay to Jose Fernandez.”

Amen.

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale

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