Greg Cote

The Jose Fernandez tragedy couldn’t get any worse. But then it did

Miami says goodbye to Jose Fernandez

Thousands of fans gathered on Sept. 28, 2016 to bid farewell to Jose Fernandez as his funeral procession stopped at Ermita de la Caridad and St. Brendan Catholic Church.
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Thousands of fans gathered on Sept. 28, 2016 to bid farewell to Jose Fernandez as his funeral procession stopped at Ermita de la Caridad and St. Brendan Catholic Church.

When the starting point is an unimaginable tragedy that quakes not only a professional sports franchise but an entire community, nothing can make that hurt or loss go away. Nothing can ever make that story better.

But something can make it worse.

On Sept. 25, South Florida awoke to the stunning news that Miami Marlins ace pitcher Jose Fernandez and two friends had been killed overnight in a boating accident off Miami Beach. On Saturday, just over a one month later, came the autopsy report indicating Fernandez had cocaine as well as an illegal level of alcohol in his system at the time the 32-foot boat he owned slammed at a high rate of speed into a bank of jetty rocks.

Fernandez, who had just turned 24, was found to have had a blood alcohol content of .147, almost double the legal limit of .08, according to toxicology results. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez ordered the medical examiner’s office to release the autopsy reports Saturday, one day after the Miami Herald sued seeking their release. Fernandez’s friends on board the boat who also died, Eduardo Rivera and Jesus Macias, were found to have had a BAC of .065 and .044, respectively. It has not been determined who was driving in the early hours of that Sunday morning, and might never be, although the fact Fernandez owned the boat and had invited the others to join him invites a presumption Fernandez was most likely at the wheel.

That all three young men had been drinking is not the surprise in Saturday’s news. There had been that assumption based on anecdotal evidence and witnesses suggesting as much. They’d been drinking at American Social Bar & Kitchen before the crash.

Cocaine. That drug found in Fernandez’s system (and in Rivera’s, too) is what jars the senses and makes this awful story all the worse. There had never been any indication that Fernandez, a hero of Cuban Miami who traversed those 90 miles to freedom in a small boat, had an issue with illegal drugs. His image was pure. Perfect, almost. He was the ever-smiling, life-loving team leader who embraced his freedom and just happened to be one of the best young pitchers in Major League Baseball. The cocaine revelation casts a posthumous shadow over the sunlight that was his life. Doesn’t make him a bad person. Makes him an imperfect human being, like most of us.

We parse tragedy, don’t we? Maybe we should not. But we do.

It is one thing to be the innocent victim. To be struck by a lightning bolt, die from cancer or even be shot by a robber. But it is something else to have played some role in the tragedy that befell you. That is what Marlins fans and South Florida must come to grips with.

That realization doesn’t make the loss any smaller.

That realization might in fact make it that much greater because now the tragedy is compounded by that lament which won’t ever go away because it’s there like an epitaph carved in marble, for all time:

It never should have happened.

It didn’t have to happen.

It was a terrible accident, yes. But it now becomes quite clear Jose Fernandez played a leading role in what erased him so suddenly from the Marlins and from Miami, if not from our hearts. It is the tragedy within the tragedy:

He should still be here. The smiling face of the franchise. The young prince of Little Havana. The star pitcher looking forward to spring training in February. The young father-to-be awaiting his first child’s birth.

The irony is that Fernandez turned out to be the all-American story in death as he was in life.

What gave him new life was the thirst for freedom, for something better than Cuba’s Castro oppression.

What caused his death, or at least played a hand in it, was the reveling in the excess that his freedom, the success he found in America, allowed.

Can you imagine having been this young man? Poverty to riches by the time you are barely old enough to order a legal beer? The culture shock can derail lives; we see it too much in professional sports. In Jose’s case, he was a teenager risking his life to flee Cuba. Just making it to America meant he succeeded. But he possessed a particular talent so coveted and rare that it turned into a lucrative career that made him famous, and adored. And suddenly the makeshift boat that brought him here could be replaced by a luxury craft with twin outboard motors — one capable of going way too fast.

That Jose Fernandez is gone at all hurts.

How it happened — and that it never should have — is what haunts.

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