José Fernández was on course to becoming one of the best right handed pitchers in baseball history. Just three years into his big league campaign, he held the highest strikeout rate in the history of the game and was the quickest starting pitcher ever to 500 strikeouts. His 98 mph fastball and devastating breaking ball lead him to be one of the most dominant players in the game. He had already emerged as arguably the best home pitcher of all time owning, a 29-2 record and a 1.49 ERA in 42 starts at Marlin Park. With a Rookie of the Year award already under his belt, José was destine to receive a Cy Young award and possible a Hall of Fame bid.
Yet, that’s not what he will be remembered by. The person that he was on and off the field outweighed the amazing talent he had. José Fernández played the game in a way no one will forget. He wore a smile on his face that could light up the ballpark, and played the game with a joy and passion unprecedented at the major league level. Every night in the dugout, he seemed to be joking around with another teammate or even an opposing team member. Off the field, he was even more compassionate. His phenomenal relationship with his family was highlighted by the emotional surprise reunion with his grandmother whom he had not seen in nine years. José repeatedly stated that his grandmother was the most important person in his life, but they were separated because she couldn’t leave Cuba due to political reasons. The moment, which was caught on video, shows the pitcher in complete shock as he embraced his grandma who taught him how to play the game of baseball.
“This is better than being in the big leagues, better than winning anything,” said Fernández about seeing his grandmother again.
The immense impact that José left not only on his teammates and family but the entire league is evident through the events that took place Monday night in Miami for the first game back after his death. Every player on the Marlins donned a No. 16 José Fernández jersey to honor their friend. During the pregame ceremony, the starting lineup gathered around the pitching mound while ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ was played on a trumpet. The rendition perfectly epitomized Fernández’s childlike love for the game of baseball. After the National Anthem, the opposing New York Mets crossed the diamond to consult and exchange hugs with the Marlins. The team then huddled up around the mound as Giancarlo Stanton delivered a sentimental speech to his sobbing teammates. A heartache and community effort similar to this hasn’t been seen on a baseball field since the first MLB game since 9/11, summarizing the incredible burden José’s passing had on the players. The bottom of the first inning delivered another emotional moment after the left handed Dee Gordon stepped into the right handed batter’s box for one pitch and imitated Fernández’s batting stance, then proceeded to hit a moonshot for his first home run of the year. Gordon trotted around the bases with his head down until he reached home, gestured to the heavens, and collapsed sobbing into the arms of his teammate. He was embraced by the rest of the crying Marlins in the dugout and again motioned to his fallen friend. It was one of the most remarkable home runs in history.
“I ain’t never hit a ball that far, even in BP,” said Gordon. “I told the boys, ‘If you all don’t believe in God, you better start.’ For that to happen today, we had some help.”
At the conclusion of the Marlins 7-3 victory, the team gathered again around the pitching mound, said their condolences, and left their hats as a symbol of camaraderie to their lost friend.
José was the heart and sole of the Marlins organization and a fantastic ambassador for the game of baseball. But most importantly, he reminded us that baseball is more that just a game. The tragic death of José Fernández might have been the end of his life, but his infectious smile and love will live forever. Former major leaguer Eduardo Perez perfectly described Fernández as ‘Pura Vida’. Pure life.