By Corey Knapp
“I hope the Marlins win a Wild-Card spot so I can watch José Fernández pitch at home in the playoffs.”
I said that to my best friend last weekend as we discussed Major League Baseball’s upcoming postseason. The Marlins have become a factor in the National League playoff race, and having seen this kid dominate our Braves nearly every time the teams played in Miami, we could only imagine Fernández taking the mound at Marlins Park in October. His lights out home performances, whose record didn’t suffer its first loss until this season, and the atmospheres that came with them, would be must-see TV in the playoffs.
Unfortunately, after the tragic death of Fernández, 24, and two friends after a boating accident early Sunday morning, that postseason spectacle will have to be left to the imaginations of baseball fans near and far. Tributes from teammates, opposing players, managers, coaches, writers, fans, and others poured in all day Sunday, many of them teary-eyed, remembering the pitcher who played the game with a joy and smile unparalleled in the MLB and who was taken far too soon.
Fernández played this kid’s game of baseball just like a big kid, his style endearing himself to both the young and old, who like me, loved watching a kid have the time of his life living out his dream. A couple of moments from the far too short career and life of Jose Fernández will always shape my memory of him.
A couple of years ago at Turner Field, Fernández threw Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman a nasty pitch that Freeman still knocked for a double. Upon reaching second base, Freeman looked toward the mound to find an incredulous Fernández asking, “How did you hit that?” Freeman shrugged, and they both laughed.
At the All Star Game earlier this season, Fernández told the media prior to the game that if he faced David Ortiz in Big Papi’s final midsummer classic, he would throw his friend “three fastballs down the middle” hoping for a home run. Fernández then proceeded to throw a changeup on the first pitch. Papi was less than pleased and joked with the pitcher after drawing a walk. On Sunday, Ortiz asked for a pregame ceremony in his honor to be cancelled in favor of one to honor Fernández.
Finally, perhaps the only thing that shined brighter than his smile or burned hotter than his fire on the mound was Fernández’s love for his family. He tried to defect from his native Cuba three times before finally reaching success on the fourth. On one trip, a passenger fell out of the boat, and a teenaged Fernández dove in for the rescue and saved her. That passenger turned out to be his mother.
After his Rookie of the Year season in 2013, he said the one person he wished could watch him pitch in person was his grandmother, still in Cuba. The Marlins arranged her trip and surprised him with a reunion in Miami, and she sat behind home plate for his starts the following season, watching him live for the first time since he was 15 years old.
The void that Fernández leaves behind is vast, as he had become the guy in Miami and was well on his way to having the entire MLB in the palm of his humble hand. Braves pitcher Tyrell Jenkins shared an agent with Fernández and put it aptly on Sunday, tweeting that Fernández was a guy that even if you didn’t know him, you felt like you knew him. Such a charisma is so rare and refreshing, and the Marlins, Miami, and Major League Baseball were better because of him.
I, along with the rest of the baseball world, am thankful to have been fortunate enough to watch José Fernández play the game of baseball. As I say my prayers for him, his family, his team, and his friends, I know José will be watching over all of them. He will be missed immensely. God and the ‘Angels in the Outfield’ now have a pitcher, whose smile can light up the entire kingdom of heaven.
Rest in Peace, José.