Two busloads of Miami Marlins players, coaches and staff paid respects at the family home of Jose Fernandez’s mother and grandmother on Sunday night. It was as horrible as you’d imagine. Sobbing and wailing cries from the two women who had lost far more than the baseball club or this community, which both lost so much. The Abuela sat looking at photos of Jose, who had turned overnight from the picture of youthful vitality to a memory.
“It was awful,” manager Don Mattingly said Monday evening as the Marlins went back to work, because it is what you do.
“Unspeakable,” said club president David Samson.
“Saddest day of my life,” said club owner Jeffrey Loria.
The grandmother could not comprehend why she had not gone first; why it had been Jose taken.
“It was out of order to her,” said Samson.
For Mattingly it brought back personal memories very distant, yet still raw enough to make his voice tremble in the telling.
Jose was only 24 when a terrible boating accident early Sunday morning killed him and two friends. Mattingly’s own brother was about the same age when his life ended just as horribly fast.
Watching Fernandez’s own mother’s pain, “It reminded me of my brother who was killed when I was 6 years old,” Mattingly said. “They shielded me from it. But I could see my Mom and what she went through.”
Jerry Mattingly, about to earn a teaching degree, was working a construction site in 1969 when he got caught beneath a steamroller.
You move on, somehow. You go on. But you never quite forget or get all the way past it. You lose a part of you, and you are never quite the same.
So the grieving Marlins played a baseball game here Monday night. It was against the New York Mets. It didn’t much matter who won, but it was cathartic the Marlins did, 7-3. When Dee Gordon, wearing Jose’s batting helmet and a shirt reading R.I.P. under his jersey, hit that leadoff home run and signaled toward the sky, he was sobbing by the time he got back to the dugout, engulfed by teammates, as fans stood and roared. Gordon would end with four hits as the face of a broken team’s palpable win-one-for-Jose mindset.
There is crying in baseball, after all. This was the night for it.
“We were hitting balls from underwater,” said Giancarlo Stanton — meaning tears.
Jose Fernandez was scheduled to be the starting pitcher. Instead, funeral arrangements are being made.
It continues to stun the senses with disbelief, a loss this sudden and great. It has quaked South Florida, starting with Cuban Miami and Marlins fans.
After the game Marlins players formed a perfect circle around the pitcher’s mound, and all left their caps on the mound for Jose in a small ceremony that was spontaneous.
“It was another way to say goodbye,” said Mattingly. “That’s his spot. It was Jose’s day. It was Jose’s night.”
“The most difficult game I’ve ever played in,” Gordon called it.
The Marlins were emotionally drained afterward. Spent.
“I’ve never been more tired in my life after throwing 45 pitches,” said starter Adam Conley. “That’s was Jose’s mound today.”
Some may recall the name David Overstreet. He was a first-round Dolphins running back who’d had a promising rookie year when, on June 24, 1984, he lost control of his car near Tyler, Texas. It swerved into gas pumps and exploded, killing him.
Horrific as that was, though, we didn’t know Overstreet like we knew Fernandez. He wasn’t connected to us like someone who’d fought for his freedom by risking to journey 90 miles in a crowded boat that included his mother. Overstreet wasn’t heart and soul Miami like Jose was.
So a growing makeshift memorial of fresh flowers, religious candles, stuffed animals and homemade signs and messages sprawls outside one of Marlins Park’s entrance gates.
Inside the park, the Marlins, every player, wore uniform 16 with “Fernandez” stitched on it Monday night, Jose’s number. The uniform maker agreed to open its Philadelphia plant on Sunday for the Marlins and ship the special commemorative jerseys here.
Jose was all over the field, on everyone’s mind, in everyone’s heart. A crowd of 26,933 pulled away from the first presidential debate to remember and help honor Fernandez.
Photos of Fernandez and Tweeted condolences over his tragic death were shown on the giant video screen before the game and between innings. The number 16 was painted onto the back of the pitcher’s mound. Fernandez’s name stood out against a black background all around the stadium. Uniform patches honoring Fernandez will appear starting Tuesday.
The pregame moment of silence was entirely that. Not a baby squalled. Not a Mets fan was heard.
Afterward both benches emptied, for the right reason. The Mets took the infield and paid respects to the Marlins, all the players sharing hugs. After that the Marlins knelt in a circle around the mound.
In the dugout beside the bullpen phone stood a single arrangement of flowers. Purple roses, white carnations and lilies.
“Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was played slow, by a single horn.
The clubhouse, normally open to media before games, had been kept closed. As a journalist, I was disappointed. As a man old enough to have buried loved ones, I understood.
There had been a death in the family.
“We’re a wreck,” Giancarlo Stanton had written on Instragram, of his reeling team.
Players, coaches and staff in a closed meeting before the game stood one at a time and said what their hearts told them to. Samson described the meeting: “Thirty-eight grown men in there with tears, trying to understand. They’re a unit that lost an appendage. They’re figuring out how to get mobile again and find their equilibrium.”
The consensus coming out of that meeting? To go on in Jose’s name, and if possible, with the spirit and passion that defined him. That it might sound corny doesn’t make it less so: Jose would have wanted it that way.
“That joy he played with is what our guys talk about,” said Mattingly. “We’re just trying to handle it the best we can. When you’re in this you’re just trying to get through the day. We knew this was going to be a little bit of a rough day.”
Mattingly made a point to mention the two other families grieving besides the Fernandez family, adding, “What we’re gong through [as a team] is absolutely nothing compared to what they’re going through.”
With playoff hopes having slipped away from the Marlins, does Mattingly wish the last five games needn’t be played at all?
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I feel good to get out here and play.”
There may be a church mass open to the public as soon as Thursday, so stay tuned.
The Marlins staged their own memorial Monday night, with the game itself secondary to the emotional tribute to Fernandez.
Samson, the club president, allowed himself to wonder aloud if Fernandez might still be alive had the team not switched his scheduled starting assignment from Sunday to Monday. “Maybe fate would be different,” he said.
It also may yet come out that occupants of that ill-fated boat had been drinking when the craft sped into those jetty rocks; TMZ already has suggested as much in a report. Marlins fans may soon have to grapple not just with the tragedy of it all, but with whether Jose may have had a hand in his own demise.
Nobody knows how to handle this. There is no handbook. A team would be stunned when any player died, but your best? The brightest light you have? The love of a community? In his budding prime?
“We’re trying to make sense of something you can’t make sense of,” as Samson put it. Several times he mentioned Jose in the present tense, as if what South Florida awakened to Sunday was just a bad dream, after all.
“I’m unwilling to use the past tense,” Samson said. “What he means to this franchise — that didn’t end yesterday.”
Samson half-kiddingly mentioned the “613 steps” the club will take to honor Fernandez, into next season. Retire his No. 16, perhaps? “That’s decision number 526.”
It was a small thing, but, as the Marlins took the field before the game in those special uniforms, fans stood and applauded every time a different player crossed that chalk line as Jose Fernandez. The applause was not boisterous, but reverent, hushed, like the sound of a thousand doves taking flight.
Up in the pressbox, a curmudgeonly old sports writer had tears welling his eyes, and hoped his colleagues didn’t notice.