September 25 was a double sucker punch to the gut: We lost 24-year-old Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez and 87-year-old golfer Arnold Palmer. Two great players, and they’re gone.
There aren’t many obvious parallels between Arnie and Jose, beside the sadistic symmetry of them passing away on the same day. Palmer, born in Pennsylvania in 1929, enjoyed a long, legendary golf career. Fernandez, born in Cuba in 1992, pitched for a few precious seasons in the major leagues. But there is one parallel between the two: They drew people in. They meant things to people. And the effect they had on their fans transcended their talent.
Everybody’s going to remember Arnie. Jack Nicklaus was the Tiger Woods-type talent of that generation, but Palmer was the fan favorite. He’s like that favorite grandpa — you have the one grandpa who’s very stern, and you have the other grandpa who shakes your hand and slips you a $20. That was Arnie. He was a Hall of Famer and an unbelievable golfer, but people are going to talk about the person more than the player.
Jose was on his way to becoming that type of athlete. He was a huge talent; you would pay the price of admission just to see him pitch. But he meant more than that. Before I met him, I already had the utmost respect for what he went through to get to the United States. Everything I’d read — trying to defect from Cuba three times, saving his mother from drowning on their journey to Florida — was heartwarming, chilling, brave. When I finally got the chance to get to know him a little bit, I liked him immediately. His charisma and passion were overwhelming.
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And he was the same way as a player: passionate. I saw him pitch in his second-to-last start, against the Braves. I looked at him and said, “It’s going to be a long night. He’s got that look in his eyes.” There was a bench-clearing incident, which was not the first one involving Jose at a Marlins-Braves matchup. Playing against Jose, it was easy to dislike him because of some of those antics. But I know that the same Braves players who clashed with him on the field would go out to dinner with him during the course of the series. They knew it was Jose being Jose.
Even though the Braves had a beef with him two weeks ago, there was an outpouring of emotion and solace from the team at the news of his death. I think we all realized the game of baseball suffered a tremendous loss, not only because of the talent that was lost, but also because he meant so much to a lot of different people and was an ambassador for so many groups: the Marlins, Cubans and Latin Americans.
Here in the South, he continues to be a god. For a 24-year-old like Jose to have this many fans, to draw people in with not only his talent but also the kind of person he was, is remarkable.
I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Arnold personally, though I would see him three or four times a year at golfing events. His philanthropic efforts are what I respected most about him. While the Chipper Jones Family Foundation continues to do great work and give money annually to many charities, I’m not going to kid myself and say I’m going to do it to the level of Arnold Palmer. There’s no way to live up to him.
Players are just like anyone else. We have our heroes, too. And here’s the thing that I’m happiest about: The guys I elevated to supergalactic all-star status, I’ve never been disappointed in them. When I interact with them, I walk away and say I’m so glad they are who I thought they were. My childhood idols lived up to being galactic all-stars.
Jose and Arnold were different men with different careers, but sports is a big umbrella. There’s room for many kinds of heroes. They were both special. They were charismatic. They were bigger than their athleticism.
Chipper Jones was a third baseman who spent his entire 19-year MLB career playing for the Atlanta Braves. An eight-time All-Star and the 1999 National League MVP, he is retired and lives in Atlanta.
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