Called my mother with the awful news Sunday morning. Had such a hard time getting out the words that she thought something terrible had happened to me.
I know how much she loved José Fernandez. As a player. As a personality. As a symbol of strength and pride for our people. Marlins management has extinguished Mom’s love for baseball one move at a time over the last two decades, but Fernandez was the only thing that brought her limping back to that ballpark to climb those stairs in her old age. The only thing. Such was the reach of his arm and his joy and his story. It could bring even a betrayed 72-year-old Cuban lady in for what felt like an embrace by grabbing her so firmly by the heart.
There was a lot of silence on the other end of the phone when I told Mom that Fernandez was dead at 24. But I could hear that she was crying. I didn’t have the words to soothe her. So I started crying, too.
These kind of emotional connections in sports are so rare. We didn’t know him. But we did. Fernandez’s exile story was our story, from fleeing to freeing, so we mourned as a family and asked questions with no answers and appreciated life and love a little more than we did a few minutes earlier. My chest hurt, and my mother wept, and my groggy father awoke in a confused and grieving fog, asking “What happened?” This was how the early hours of Sunday felt for a lot of South Florida, so much of South Florida, too much of South Florida, morning turned to mourning.
Fernandez made us care. Damn it, this emotional investment. Why? Damn it. Why? Fernandez took us with him for the emotional ride. And it was such a fun party. A carnival. Watching him work was a pleasure, his joy birthing our joy, contagious and expanding and shared — hell, yes, multiplying joy — so Sunday mourning felt like the horror of watching the parade route end in a wreck and a funeral. So sudden. So fast. Too fast. Why? Damn it. Why?
An uncommon joy has been extinguished. Fernandez had found freedom on one boat, and now his life had ended on another. There will be uncomfortable questions about that in the coming days, and an investigation, but nobody wants to hear about that during the grief of the eulogy. This feels so cruel, so wrong, so unfair. It is the worst kind of awful, young life extinguished with thudding finality before it can really be lived, but it is somehow made harder because it was this life.
I’m not talking about his promise or his pitching potential, even though he was on his way to a $200 million contract and the loss of his baseball value is crippling to the franchise. I’m talking about his personality, his energy, his soul. Fernandez had so much joy and enthusiasm and gratitude and passion pouring from him — for being in this country, for getting to do what he loved, for squeezing every ounce of fun out of the day — that it could move even the repressed and the sour. His smile and laugh routinely thawed stoic statues like Giancarlo Stanton. Jesus, even hitting coach Barry Bonds was always kissing him in the damn dugout.
In the history of South Florida sports, only Dontrelle Willis has matched his contagious enthusiasm and charisma. And I say matched it because I know of no human way for his joy at work to be topped. He loved what he did, loved it so hard and so big, loved it so much that he forced you to love it, too. Fernandez played the way the best Latin music feels. He acted like a little boy in a sports world soaked with adult problems and cynicisms that can make us lose sight of the root verb at the center of what he did for a living. To play. You expected him to throw his glove into the sky at the end of successful innings. And you know what watching him work felt like to South Florida’s Cubans? Freedom.
All around that ballpark, in the bodegas and restaurants where people don’t speak English, you will find a slice of his story. So much of Miami’s economy and vibrancy and culture and flavor is built atop it. He tried to defect from Cuba four times, once saving his drowning mother during an attempted escape, the desperation on that rotting island such that he kept literally throwing his life to the wind to escape it. He was jailed after being caught once, but said the first few months of freedom in this country were harder on him than even the incarceration in that one. Such can be the difficulty of the transition for immigrants, exiles and dream chasers.
He didn’t understand how the faucet sensors worked in America’s airport bathrooms. He knew so little English that he didn’t even know where to put his name on a high school test. He so missed the grandmother who raised him, a grandmother who would later go to the roof of her apartment in Cuba to hear him pitch in the All-Star game on her tinny radio, that he would wander off into the woods to cry for hours at a time. But his golden arm reached across that ocean and got abuela here in an emotional reunion two years ago, so he was just beginning to share and live the best parts of his realized American dream. He had his first baby on the way. He worked so hard and sacrificed so much to get to the top of this mountain, and he barely had time to enjoy the view.
Thank you, José.
For sharing your joyful time with us.
For telling your story and our story with so much color and flair.
And for making us care in a way that can be hard to see today through our tears.