No Marlin knew.
“Make sure you watch,” was all he told them.
All day long, Dee Gordon practiced mimicking the batting stance. The precise bend of the knees. The positioning of the hands. The back-and-forth waggle of the bat.
When he got to the ballpark, he let batboy Michael “Boots” Perez in on his plan, but only to make sure he was handed the right helmet when it was his turn to hit. During batting practice, Gordon — as a professional courtesy — also alerted New York Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud as to what was to come.
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D’Arnaud, in turn, relayed the information to Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon.
Colon gave his blessing through visiting clubhouse attendant Rock Hughes, who sent word back to Gordon in the Marlins’ clubhouse.
And then it happened.
Gordon, wearing a Jose Fernandez jersey with the pitcher’s last name and “16” stitched on the back like all the rest of the Marlins that night, strode from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box.
Only instead of taking his customary spot on the left side of the plate, Gordon, wearing the right-handed hitter’s helmet given to him by Perez, stepped into the other side — Fernandez’s side — as a tribute.
Fernandez had died the day before in a boating accident.
“I tried my best,” Gordon said of duplicating the pitcher’s exact stance and movements.
Gordon watched Colon’s first pitch go by for a ball, removed his helmet, donned his normal helmet, stepped across the plate to the left side, and whacked Colon’s third into the upper deck in right.
“I looked up and I was, like, damn,” Gordon said. “I just ran.”
By the time Gordon circled the bases and returned to the Marlins dugout, he was sobbing, overtaken by emotion and grief.
It was his only home run of the season.
“It was one of those you-can’t-explain-it moments,” Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich said. “It was probably one of the best moments I’ve seen on the field.”
It’s been six months since Fernandez’s tragic death and Gordon’s jaw-dropping home run — a dramatic shot that was voted the “Moment of the Year” in Major League Baseball.
Gordon is hoping the new season, which opens Monday in Washington, D.C., for the Marlins, contains no more heartbreak.
Or anymore humbling moments like the 80-game league suspension he received in May after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, a moment that also reduced the Marlins’ leadoff man to tears in Los Angeles when he hugged his teammates goodbye and flew home alone.
“New chapter,” Gordon said.
Two years ago, Gordon had the season of his life. He won the batting and stolen base titles, the first National League player to do that since Jackie Robinson in 1949. The second baseman also won a Gold Glove.
The Marlins rewarded him with a $50 million contract, and owner Jeffrey Loria presented him a large jeweled neck pendant in a show of appreciation. Then his season fell apart.
“It was depressing,” Gordon said of the suspension. “I wasn’t going to get to play. I didn’t want to try to cheat anybody or anything. It just happened.”
Gordon returned home to Orlando as the Marlins played on without him.
“It was just me by myself,” he said. “I watched every game. Me and the guys texted. I wasn’t just going to leave my boys hanging.”
But he couldn’t help them on the field.
Gordon worked out everyday to stay in shape for his eventual return. Former players reached out to console him.
“I talked to a lot of older guys, guys I looked up to,” he said. “I talked to [Ken] Griffey [Jr.], Barry Larkin, Franklin Stubbs, Gene Clines. They told me, ‘We know you didn’t try to do nothing on purpose. But you’ve got to be a man.’ They were proud how I took it on the chin. I didn’t blame anyone. I served my time.”
Gordon hit .266 before the suspension, .267 after it.
“My family always told me failure is only what you make of it,” he said. “If I said woe is me and cried about it, I wouldn’t be the man I am today.”
Gordon is self-deprecating. He doesn’t consider himself to be a good player even when his numbers say otherwise.
“I’m not a guy who’s going to walk up there and win a game with thunder,” Gordon said. “I’m not Giancarlo [Stanton] big. I don’t have the pure swing Yelich has. I am built to grind. That’s it. That’s what I do.
“It’s not pretty. It’s not glitz and glamour. It’s not cute. I’m not your prototypical baseball player. I’m a basketball player [Gordon was a standout point guard in high school] who plays baseball.”
That breakout season in 2015 when he topped the league with a .333 average and 58 stolen bases?
“I came in like 25th in MVP voting, so it was not a great season,” he said.
Gordon’s goal isn’t to return to his 2015 level.
“I don’t care about last year,” he said. “I don’t care about ’15. I don’t care about ’14. It’s only about today. I can’t tap that dude from ’15 on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, let’s hit like him today. I’ve got to hit like Dee Gordon today. I’ve got to steal bases like Dee Gordon today.
“I like grinding. I like playing hard. I don’t need nothing to be easy for me.”
Gordon said he cares less about himself than he does others. He would rather help the Marlins get to the playoffs for the first time since 2003 than win any batting or stolen stolen bases, or make the All-Star team for a third time. He said none of that is important to him.
“I care about my teammates. I care about my family and friends. I care about people. Even when I was a little kid, see a kid with a disability, somebody’s picking on him. I will get in trouble for fighting for that kid. I’ve always been that way. Not a lot of people know much about me. People only see the tip of the iceberg.”
The world saw plenty when Gordon hit his home run in September.
The tears came flooding out.
“I didn’t know I was going to hit that home run,” Gordon said. “But honest to God, I wasn’t shocked when I did, either.”
Looking back, Gordon said the shock of Fernandez’s death was far more devastating to him than the 80-game suspension.
“Life isn’t always about you,” Gordon said. “There’s always a bigger picture. I get to play again. [Fernandez’s] momma ain’t ever going to see him. His friends and family aren’t going to see him anymore. My family, they still get to see me.”
The ball Gordon hit into the seats — the ball he hit for the biggest home run of his life — was retrieved and given back to him. He didn’t keep it.
“I gave it,” he said, “to Jose’s mom.”