What a brutal week of mourning, of coming to grips, we have experienced together in these seven days since we awoke to the horrible news. I am not sure South Florida has been as devastated as a community by anything since Hurricane Andrew hit us with all its might in August of 1992, but this was different. This was personal. One man. The pain was more intimate. The tragedy had a face, and we’ll forever ache to see it looking at us with that megawatt smile.
Jose D. Fernandez, 1992-2016.
We lost the beloved American icon Arnold Palmer the same day but it was so different. Arnie was 87, his golf prime more than a half-century past. There was not the shock. Palmer had, as mourners would console themselves, led a full life.
I tried to explain and describe to a friend who lives out of state what it was like at Marlins Park one night later, when the team took the field for the first time since that overnight boating accident, the players all wearing his No. 16 jersey. When that lone horn played “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” slow. When Dee Gordon hit that home run and collapsed sobbing into his teammates’ arms in the dugout.
It was awful — but yet it was wonderful, too, to palpably see and feel the raw love for this young man, gone in his budding prime at age 24.
I have felt that all week, and seen it, and I have never been more proud of Miami, its people, its heart. The Marlins organization and its fans, the Cuban community that held Jose so dearly, the folks who never met him and weren’t even baseball fans but cared and cried nonetheless — all stepped up enormously to embrace Fernandez’s grieving mother and grandmother with an outpouring that was massive and stunning.
It is the best of human nature, isn’t it? We rise to the occasion. We rally. When our neighbor needs us, we are there. When our community is hurting, we respond. When we are socked suddenly by a tragedy so unimaginable, we embrace and feel each other’s pain and somehow get through it together.
Some of us down here speak only English. Some speak only Spanish. But all of us speak the language of tears, of caring and loss. We have more in common than what divides us.
Have you visited the makeshift memorial that fans have made for Fernandez just outside the ballpark? It will break your heart and lift it all at once. Bunches of flowers, too many to count. Religous candles. Balloons floating languidly. Handwritten letters and signs in two languages. On walls flanking the shrine, fans have written hundreds — no thousands — of small endearments.
Before last week, I knew Fernandez was a popular player for his excellence on the pitcher’s mound and his life-loving personality that made him such a bright light. I knew he was particularly admired by Cuban Americans for his 90-mile journey to freedom. But until this week, I did not know he was beloved.
All week I have seen proof, seen it in the tears spanning generations. At the ballpark memorial on Wednesday, a little blonde girl who looked about 6 cried as she tossed a red rose onto the pile of flowers. A few steps away, a very old man in a wheelchair stared at the loving display while holding a small Cuban flag.
“Joseito,” he kept saying, softly.
Losing Jose Fernandez is beyond baseball, bigger than sports, because his was the quintessential Miami story, at the intersection where Cuba and America meet. But at the same time it crystallizes what a depressing time it is that engulfs so much of our sports landscape now.
The Miami Heat tries to refashion itself after losing icon Dwyane Wade in free agency this summer, a once-unthinkable parting, and more recently cutting ties with Chris Bosh for medical reasons related to his blood clots.
The Miami Dolphins reminded us just Thursday night, again, that they remain stuck in what seems an eternal mire of mediocrity, a perpetual doldrums.
Maybe the Hurricanes football team will be really good. Maybe the Florida Panthers will be. Maybe one of our teams will do something to help lift South Florida, because we could use that.
As the hearse carried Fernandez’s body in a procession past Marlins Park to a priest’s blessing and then on to a public memorial service at Miami’s St. Brendan Catholic Church, restaurant employees at La Carreta on Eighth Street were ready. They were on the sidewalk, all raising small demitasse cups of café cubano in a reverent toast as the hearse passed by.
That night came a moving sight as thousands upon thousands waited quietly in a line several blocks long for the chance to briefly walk past a closed casket in a church, perhaps to lightly touch it. To pay respects. To say goodbye.
I watched that aching pilgrimage and it struck me yet again. It was that same odd feeling of dichotomy: That something so awful had summoned in us something so wonderful.
This week we as a community showed, with full heart and massive, gentle force, how much we loved this young man. How much we cared.
That is the only good that can come of death, the one true consolation.