The grounds crew solemnly stenciled “16” in large white numerals on the pitching mound at Marlins Park before turning on sprinklers to water the outfield grass. They could have collected the tears shed at the ballpark on Sunday to do the same job.
The Marlins were left grieving the loss of Cuban-born pitching sensation Jose Fernandez, who was killed with two others in a boating accident early Sunday morning.
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“I’m still waiting to wake up from this nightmare,” Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton posted on Instagram. “I lost my brother today and can’t quite comprehend it. The shock is overwhelming.”
Second baseman Dee Gordon was weeping when he arrived at the ballpark for a game that was never played. Manager Don Mattingly and Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill sobbed when they spoke at a news conference.
All 37 players on the Marlins roster — all but Fernandez — stood grim-faced as Marlins president David Samson delivered the devastating news to media.
“I think that when you talk about a tragedy like this, there are no words that come to mind,” Samson said. “There’s no playbook.”
Fernandez was not only the best pitcher on the Marlins. He was one of the premier hurlers in the majors, a 24-year-old flamethrower and two-time All-Star who was as exuberant as he was exceptional.
“When I think about Jose ... I see such a little boy in him,” said Mattingly, fighting back tears. “That’s the joy that Jose played with, and the passion he felt about playing.”
Fernandez was born and raised in Cuba before defecting to the United States on a boat with his mother. During their journey, Fernandez dived into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico to rescue her after she fell overboard during a storm.
The Marlins drafted Fernandez with the 14th overall pick in the 2011 draft, and it didn’t take long for him to reach the majors, making his debut at the start of the 2013 season.
Fernandez was an instant success.
He captured the National League Rookie of the Year award, was selected to his first All-Star team and became a fan favorite in Miami, where he dominated in his home ballpark.
Fernandez missed much of the 2014 and ’15 seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his prized right arm but picked up this season where he left off, turning in his finest campaign as a big-leaguer.
Fernandez was 16-8 with a 2.58 ERA while averaging 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings — the fifth-highest single-season strikeout rate by a pitcher in Major League Baseball history.
“One of the best people I’ve ever met,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “Unbelievable competitor. A lot of pitchers, when you get a hit off them, they get mad at you. But he’s smiling at you, having a good time. You get drawn to him.”
Fernandez was originally scheduled to start Sunday against the Braves at Marlins Park, where Fernandez owned a preposterous 29-2 career record and 1.49 ERA. But that start — what likely would have been his final outing of the season — was pushed back to Monday. Had the Marlins stuck with their original plans that called for Fernandez to start Sunday’s day game, it’s doubtful he would gone out that morning on the boat that killed him.
When he spoke to reporters Saturday, Fernandez said what he cherished most from the season weren’t his statistics, but the fact he had remained healthy, with no arm issues. He tapped his wood locker with his hand when he made the command — for good luck.
On Sunday, hours after the accident, the Marlins were left to deal with the sudden loss.
Samson said the Marlins were first notified about Fernandez’s accident at about 6:45 a.m.
“Sadly, the brightest lights are often the ones that extinguish the fastest,” Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria said in a statement. “Jose left us far too soon, but his memory will endure in all of us.”
While Sunday’s game was canceled, Samson said the Marlins would play their remaining six games, albeit with heavy hearts.
“That is how these guys can honor Jose, and all of us can,” Samson said. “I think somebody said that if Jose were here, he would be saying we’re going to get out there tomorrow and play, and honor the game, and honor the people who wish they could play the game, but can’t.”
Marlins third baseman Martin Prado said it will a difficult time for players.
“We’re not robots,” Prado said. “We’re humans, and we feel. I understand the fact that we’ve got to play games, and we’ve got to be professional about it. But in our hearts, there is a lot of pain.”
Said Samson: “Jose, the magnanimity of his personality, transcended culture, religion and race. It just did. His story is a story well-told, and it will be told forever.”