In My Opinion | Michelle Kaufman

Michelle Kaufman: Marlins sensation Jose Fernandez has earned the right to be exuberant

 
 
Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, jokes with Jacob Turner in the dugout in the ninth inning during a game against the Washington Nationals at Marlins Park in Miami on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013.
Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, jokes with Jacob Turner in the dugout in the ninth inning during a game against the Washington Nationals at Marlins Park in Miami on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013.
PEDRO PORTAL / El Nuevo Herald
WEB VOTE Should Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez tone down his antics?

mkaufman@MiamiHerald.com

An open letter to Marlins rookie pitching sensation Jose Fernandez:

No cambies! Don’t change!

Don’t tone down. Not even a little. Ignore the purists and the critics. Keep being your exuberant self. Keep leading cheers from the dugout. Keep joking and laughing and engaging in conversations with opposing players. Keep jumping up and down and pumping your fists when your teammates hit home runs. Keep flashing that megawatt smile, the brightest smile around the Marlins clubhouse since another hot-shot rookie pitcher named Dontrelle Willis was making waves with his unorthodox delivery 10 years ago.

No cambies! Don’t change!

You felt like taking a second or two to stand at the plate and admire your first career home run as it cleared the fence last week? Who can blame you? You deserve that moment of joy, and then some. You were not disrespecting the Atlanta Braves. You are 20 years old and were celebrating a lifelong dream.

You went to hell and back to reach this country from Cuba. Three times you left your home in Santa Clara and set out on a boat seeking freedom. Three times you wound up back in Cuba, and the third time, at age 14, you were thrown in prison upon your return. You had gotten within view of the twinkling lights of the Miami skyline on that third attempt, but the Coast Guard intercepted your boat and sent you back. Finally, on the fourth attempt, after having to dive in the water to save your drowning mother, you made it to Mexico, and eventually to Tampa, where the Marlins spotted you.

So, by golly, go ahead and admire that home run. You earned that right. Your courage and persistence should be applauded.

You are the best thing to happen to the Marlins in a long time, and your unbridled affection for your sport is exactly what baseball needs. Athletes in other sports celebrate — and yes, sometimes do look cocky in doing so. Football players break into entertaining end-zone dances after scoring touchdowns. Soccer players around the world celebrate goals with all sorts of creative theatrics. Basketball players wag fingers and showboat. And did anyone around here have more fun while winning than the demonstrative University of Miami Hurricanes of the 1980s? They never hid their joy. They took football seriously, but not at the expense of having fun.

Same goes for Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Deion Sanders and the Heat’s Chris “The Birdman” Andersen, whose energy and wing-flapping took NBA playoff fun to a whole other level.

It’s fun to score. No need to hang your head down and round the bases with no emotion just because that’s some kind of unwritten baseball tradition. Despite all its statistics and history, baseball is a game. It’s a bunch of guys in funny pants and knee socks who hit and catch a ball and run around a diamond. Be yourself. As long as you’re not disrespectful, go for it!

OK, spitting toward the Braves’ Chris Johnson while passing third base was out of line. No need for that. But cocky grins from the mound? Taking a moment to soak in a career milestone homer? Go ahead.

“Jose is an emotional guy, that’s part of his game that is going to improve,” Marlins manager Mike Redmond said. “We don’t want to take the ‘having fun’ aspect away from him. That’s what makes him him. But at the same time, I think maybe he can center that a little bit. That might be a part of his game he needs to look at, and maybe try to do something different.”

Of course, you should respect your manager. Redmond is a good guy who understands that players have different personalities. But when he tells you to “try to do something different,” he seems to be saying to tone down, to be more conventional, to harness emotions.

Nah. Disagree.

Drawing card

You play for the last-place Marlins, for heaven’s sake. There hasn’t been much to be excited about all season. You should be applauded for bringing smiles and laughter to that building. You were 9-0 at home with an incredible 1.19 ERA — best in all of baseball. You are a huge reason 25,000 people showed up for that Braves game.

No question you should be named National League Rookie of the Year. Your numbers are sick — 2.19 ERA, second-lowest in the majors behind the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw. Only three rookie pitchers have done better in the past 65 years. You struck out 187 batters in 172 innings. The Marlins were 18-10 when you started, which means you can be largely thanked for one-third of the team’s victories this season.

Five years ago, you were on a boat, bobbing in the rough waters of the Florida Straits, wondering if you’d live or die. Today, you are one of the most entertaining players in Major League Baseball, along with another Cuban defector, Yasiel Puig, who, by the way, has also been asked to tone it down, who has been criticized for over-celebrating and flipping his bat after hitting a home run.

Infectious passion

The Cuban passion for baseball is unmatched. It can be infectious. It’s good for baseball. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

“He’s going to be one of the top pitchers in this league for a long time, but you want your players to be judged for the way they compete, not for the theatrics,” Redmond said of Fernandez.

Jose, there is nothing wrong with the way you compete. You compete with all your heart and all your soul. Your theatrics make people smile and enjoy a game that too often takes itself too seriously. Here’s hoping you’ll be remembered for the way you compete, and for your theatrics.

No cambies! Don’t change!

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