Jose Fernandez would often sit with Chris Johnson inside the Marlins’ dugout this season in a section known as the “Goon Squad” — a spot on the bench reserved for the reserves.
There would be times, Johnson said, Fernandez would turn to him during games and say, “Who would have thought?”
On Sept. 11, 2013, no one would have thought it.
That’s the day Fernandez, a rookie at the time, incited a benches-clearing confrontation when he punctuated his first major-league home run by flipping his bat and then taking an exceptionally slow trot around the bases.
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The Braves took extreme offense and Johnson, who was Atlanta’s third baseman, was the angriest of all, charging from his position to confront Fernandez near home plate.
There was yelling. There was spitting. But no punches were ever thrown.
Wistfully, Johnson recalled the incident on Wednesday as TVs inside the Marlins’ clubhouse showed live coverage of Fernandez’s memorial service.
“I had one view of him,” Johnson said, “and it was completely wrong.”
Johnson was among the throng of players and team officials who surrounded Fernandez’s hearse outside Marlins Park on Wednesday, respectfully placing their hands on the black vehicle before it slowly pulled away for a public memorial service.
“Signing here is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my professional career,” Johnson said. “Knowing what I know now, I would have been extremely sad had I not gotten to know him.”
What Johnson found in the seven months they’ve been teammates — from the start of spring training in February until the pitcher’s death on Sunday — was that the Fernandez he came to know wasn’t the same person who rubbed some the wrong way.
“I’m one of the fortunate people who got to come over and see the other side of that, to see where those antics come from, where the fire comes from, where the smiles come from,” Johnson said.
Johnson said Fernandez’s bat flip in 2013 wasn’t what caused him to lose his temper.
“The number one reason why it pissed me off so bad is because he was so good,” Johnson said. “It was because I was getting out every single time, and there was this guy standing out there — Jose. I’m grinding. I’m trying to get a hit as hard as I can, and he’s out there having a good time, smiling, laughing, doing whatever he wants on the baseball field.
“He hit homers against us. He’s striking us out. He’s getting wins. That’s the reason why everybody gets so upset, is because he’s so good.”
But Johnson discovered Fernandez’s joy was genuine.
“That kid didn’t have an ounce of hate in his heart, ever, towards anybody,” Johnson said. “He’s not smiling because he’s getting you out. He’s smiling because he’s having fun. It’s not a job for him like it is for a lot of us. He made it out of Cuba. He’s in the United States. He’s a citizen. Everything else is icing on the cake.”
Johnson’s eyes have remained as red as everyone else’s since Sunday — red from so much crying.
He’s given a lot of thought about the the times they’ve shared.
“We talked about it all the time,” Johnson said of their 2013 run-in. “We’d be sitting in the dugout and he’d say, ‘Who would have thought?’ That’s something I think about now. Who would have thought I would be here with the Marlins and we would be friends? Who would have thought he and I would become teammates and brothers?
“It’s crazy what this game will do.”
▪ Thursday: Off day.
▪ Friday: Marlins RHP Andrew Cashner (5-11, 5.13 ERA) at Washington Nationals (TBA), 7:05 p.m., Nationals Park.
▪ Saturday: Marlins LHP Wei-Yin Chen (5-4, 5.02) at Nationals (TBA), 4:05 p.m., Nationals Park.