The little lady put it to me this way, over the noise of the shower rinsing shampoo from my ever-thinning hair:
“Have you heard of Jose Fernandez, from the Miami team?”
You know where that’s going the second you hear it, and it’s not “…well he’s signing autographs in our living room.” And when she said the ‘how’, my first thought was of the spring training tragedy of similar circumstances that killed Steve Olin and Tim Crews in 1993. Florida. Boat hit something at high-speed in the dark.
And then I thought how in baseball, tragedy often takes the guys you need the most.
Fernandez was a living American Dream who at just fifteen years old defected from a Cuba still under the watchful, despotic eye of Fidel Castro. His harrowing Cuba-Mexico-USA journey, just to be a part of what we have here, included him saving his mother from drowning. The best part of that story is that he didn’t know at first that it was his mother he was saving. It makes one shake their fist that much harder at a cruel God that would take this man’s life on the water.
Perhaps ‘live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse’ really only works for poster art, not those impacted by it.
For fantasy baseball junkies, his arrival in the bigs was something akin to the Beatles landing at LaGuardia Airport for the first time. His game was non-stop nasty: swinging strikes and 500 home run hitters realizing they hadn’t seen that kind of stuff yet. In 2014 every fantasy manager built their entire draft strategy around the kid, and many a season went down the tubes when an early May trip to the DL for a strained elbow quickly turned into Tommy John surgery.
And while TJ surgery has improved as the new century has unfolded, there weren’t a lot of folks predicting that Fernandez would transition from rookie phenom to dominant ace the instant that he took the mound again. His 2016 season had put him in the running for his first Cy Young. Either way there was nothing to tell us he wouldn’t pick up two or three along the road to Cooperstown.
I re-watched the video of his (infamous) first career home run from late 2013. The one where Fernandez looked at it a little too long and then spit on the ground next to Chris Johnson as he passed the Braves third baseman. Everything except the spittle was grounds for giving him a pass. As a more thorough analysis of the exchange shows, Brian McCann’s words for Fernandez appeared to mostly be…let’s call it ‘unwanted advice.’ Johnson’s reaction comes off as a bit hillbilly-ish, but all must’ve forgotten by 2016 as they were both Marlins this year. Johnson’s also hitting .219 in 2016, so maybe his interpretation of humility was rooted in knowing that his cup of coffee in The Show would end sooner than the fireballer’s.
But Fernandez had matured since then without losing his youthful zeal. In watching the interviews with Don Mattingly just hours after Fernandez’s death, it appears that something of a personal hero has been lost for the Marlins skipper, himself a baseball icon of the highest order. Fernandez had matured more than he even had to and become a leader of a franchise that performed well beyond expectations this year.
As a Cuban expat slinging horsehide in the world capital of Cuban expats, he was every inch the New American Dream and a borderline perfect idol for the countless South Floridians with names ending in ‘ez’. And from a strictly bottom-line perspective, MLB is losing a huge asset. In a region where you can play outdoor sports all year, there are a lot of pre-pubescent wunderkinds looking for a compelling reason to take the mound as opposed to lining up as a slot receiver. That perfect icon is no more.
Perhaps ‘live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse’ really only works for poster art, not those impacted by it. That meaningless motto is generally attributed to another 24 year old that went out on top living his life at high speed. And while Jose Fernandez might never have the pop culture overload legacy that James Dean had, he will be Forever Young.