Greg Cote

Marlins’ Jose Fernandez statue is divisive yet has a chance to serve a greater purpose

Dominic Estevez, left, and his brother Armani Estevez look at the Jose Fernandez tribute before the start of the Miami Marlins’ home opener against the Atlanta Braves at Marlins Park on Tuesday, April 11, 2017.
Dominic Estevez, left, and his brother Armani Estevez look at the Jose Fernandez tribute before the start of the Miami Marlins’ home opener against the Atlanta Braves at Marlins Park on Tuesday, April 11, 2017. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

Debate is the currency of sports, but we prefer our arguments benign. Harmless. Easy. No wrong answers, no hard feelings. Who should the Dolphins draft with their first-round pick? Can LeBron James ever catch Michael Jordan as the greatest ever? Flip a coin and pick a side because it doesn’t really matter.

Sometimes, though, sports forces upon us a question neither simple nor easy, one in which the arguments on both sides can feel right and feel wrong all at once. A question like this:

Is it appropriate for the Marlins to go ahead with plans to build a statue honoring fallen star Jose Fernandez?

Controversy is nothing new to the public relations-impaired Marlins, and this latest one is not dissuading the club. A larger-than-life bronze statue of Fernandez, the plans revealed last week, will permanently rise in Marlins Park’s east or west plaza beginning next year, after likely being unveiled during the offseason.

“The statue will be there long after Jeffrey [Loria] and I, and you, and the protesters, are all gone,” Marlins president David Samson told me — not defiantly or with gloat, but with immovable resolve.

The Fernandez legacy is complicated. It is big and flawed. Those who consider him a hero have cause. Those who say he went out the bad guy do, too.

Here are four broad statements about his life, and all are accurate and inseparable from the others:

Jose Fernandez was the Marlins’ brightest star and one of the best young pitchers in all of Major League Baseball when a tragedy suddenly ended his life last September.

Jose Fernandez played with a boyish, infectious passion and with an inspiring enthusiasm and smile that lit up the team.

Jose Fernandez was especially beloved in Miami’s Cuban community after risking his life to escape in search of a baseball career and more than that, freedom.

Jose Fernandez was speeding recklessly and impaired by alcohol and cocaine when his boat plowed into jetty rocks off Miami Beach, killing himself and two other young men.

All true, all a part of his legacy. Three reasons for that statue. And one compelling argument against it.

The father of a man killed in a drunk-driving crash is among the many who have written to Samson imploring the Marlins to scrap the statue idea in the wake of the state’s damning toxicology report. Families of both young men also killed in the crash are suing Fernandez’s estate.

Sally Matson is a victim advocate with the Miami chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD): “I think we have to be very careful about memorializing a person who would’ve been charged with two counts of manslaughter had he survived,” she said. “We can’t condone drinking and drugged driving.”

Marlins players this season all are wearing a small uniform patch with Fernandez’s number, 16, encircled in black. The gesture is simple, relatively discreet and temporary. Also, it feels more personal than public — teammates honoring a loved one.

A statue, though, is big and not discreet. It is public and permanent. The controversy showed in a recent poll in my blog. I asked: “Marlins statue for Jose Fernandez: appropriate or inappropriate?” More than 500 voted, and it was 65.8 percent “inappropriate,” 22.2 percent “appropriate” and 12.0 percent “undecided.”

Samson said he welcomes the debate and believes the statue can serve a positive purpose as a constant reminder that perhaps “can help one child not get into a car or boat drunk.”

In that spirit, the Marlins should partner up and offer to sponsor a MADD fundraiser once a season, raising awareness in the names of Fernandez, Emilio Jesus Macias and Eduardo Rivera, the three victims of impaired driving. There is an opportunity to see both sides on the same side.

Samson: “We are not saying the story of Jose should not be told — everything. His quest for freedom to when he took his last breath. It’s all part of it, even if part of it is negative and painful. We want [the statue] to facilitate conversation and honor a life cut too short — and with great consequence to other people. His story is of great moments and horrifically tragic moments. He was a man. Man is fallible.”

The team president emphasized “drunk driving is a major, major issue, and this isn’t us trying to hide anything.” But he also said the recklessness that caused a tragedy “does not change what Jose meant to Miami and the Marlins franchise.”

Let us aspire to civil dialogue on this, not hate. The statue for Fernandez makes me uneasy, yes. If I were the club I probably would not do it. But I cannot vehemently oppose it when I understand the intent comes from the right place — and that this statue can serve a purpose beyond most.

If the statue is a constant reminder of a journey to freedom, of baseball passion and a wonderful smile, that will be good.

If it also is a constant reminder of the hurt that leads groups like MADD to exist, that might be even better.

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