Greg Cote

The Jose Fernandez tragedy, 1 year later: Regret, tears & a legacy’s dark shadow

The massive concrete pillar on the northwest corner of Marlins Park remains, for now, a tribute to Jose Fernandez. On all four sides, on walls painted orange, you see his surname and number, 16, in large block letters alongside black ribbons that read: 1992-2016.

All across those walls, written in black markers and pens and tears, are little poems of heartache and love, in English and in Spanish, printed and script. Thank yous. But you notice now that many of the messages have begun to fade.

Sun and wind and rain will do that.

Time will do that.

It has been one year since South Florida awoke on a Sunday, Sept. 25, to the impossible horror that Marlins ace pitcher Jose Fernandez had died, at age 24, in the wee hours of that morning in a boating accident that also killed two companions. The news was breaking like hearts across Miami.

One year later is a time to reflect and fathom things like “legacy,” but it isn't easy with this. It isn't neat. It is uncomfortable, wrapped in toxicology reports and litigation and regret for what never should have happened.

How we remember Jose Delfin Fernandez is complicated and controversial, personal and polarizing. It is difficult. Because if it is the truth that Jose was a hero to Marlins fans and to Cuban Miami – and he was – it also is true the hero did not die heroically.

This was a tragedy, first, but also a holy mess.

Had he lived, Fernandez might have faced charges including boating-under-the influence manslaughter, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

There is a stain on the memory. It will not go away.

The young men killed along with Fernandez were Emilio Macias and Eduardo Rivero.

The Marlins retired Fernandez's number.

The numbers of Macias and Rivero were retired, too. Their ages, 27 and 25, will never change.

The 46-page investigative report indicated Fernandez was behind the wheel when three families exploded. He was speeding and impaired by alcohol and cocaine when his 32-foot SeaVee sped through the blackness and plowed into the north jetty of Government Cut off Miami Beach.

The lawsuits against Fernandez's estate filed by the families of Macias and Rivero suggest the same.

On July 31, which would have been Jose's 25th birthday, his mother, Maritza Fernandez, spray-painted 'JDF16' on the rocks where he died, lighting 25 small candles and tossing flowers into the water, where his ashes had been strewn. That night his mother attended her first and only Marlins game of the season, introducing Jose's then-5-month-old daughter Penelope to his former teammates.

The families of Macias and Rivero, with much less attention, cried the same tears, felt the same pain, only theirs tinged in anger. Three families are now forever intertwined, and to those who might read this as not letting Jose “rest in peace,” I would ask about the peace taken away from two other families.

A Marlins fan in a '16' jersey stands perusing the Jose memorial as folks begin to arrive for a recent home game against the Mets. He says he is Duardo Mesa, 74, from Miami. I ask if he is bothered that Fernandez ultimately was responsible, investigators say, for the deadly accident.

“I am for the Cuban people who want libertad and I am for the Marlins, and Jose was both,” he tells me. “But I am not God, to judge.”

Inside the Marlins' lavish clubhouse, in a far corner, Fernandez's lockerstall remains, for now. It is entombed behind glass. His cleats in a neat row. His jerseys on hangars. The glove with his signature.

He would stand in this space, the bill of his cap tilted up, smile radiating, his boy's passion for baseball infectious.

The Marlins, as a team, and their fans, suffered an irreplaceable loss. The first season without him has been very special, Miami hosting its first All-Star Game, and Giancarlo Stanton bearing down on an epic 60 home runs. But it is the season of those memorial patches worn on the uniforms, for now, the '16' encircled in black.

Marcell Ozuna, Jose's best friend on the team, dresses two lockers from the one encased in glass.

One year is not enough time to heal.

“We feel like we lost the world,” Ozuna says.

There might have been a major Jose tribute on Opening Day in April. There was not.

There might have been a major remembrance during All-Star Game events. There was not.

There were major plans to erect a statue of Fernandez. Now, that may not happen.

The outgoing ownership of Jeffrey Loria wanted the statue. Now club president David Samson tells us the decision will defer to the incoming new ownership group fronted by Derek Jeter when the official change of power happens soon after the season ends.

The statue likely will never happen, a club source told me. The group Mothers Against Drunk Driving already had publicly opposed it.

“I don't think you need a statue to remember Jose and take the lessons,” said Samson.

The past year has been a delicate challenge for the Marlins, the controversy one reason the club has eschewed public events such as an Opening Day ceremony.

“The key is we didn't ignore any part of his life, “ Samson said. “We celebrated the player, the man, the legacy – but we did it understanding the reality of a life cut short, and why it was cut short. It was always in our mind that two other people passed away.”

Samson said that rather than “looking for a gate bump” with public events, the club established a trust fund to support and pay for Jose's daughter's education. “What we were after,” he said, “was for his family to know that no matter how much time passed he would always be a big part of our family. He's a Marlin forever.”

Without a statue's bronze cast of immortality there will be only the very human Jose Fernandez who lives in the memory, the young man of such excellence, and frailty.

To Miami Cubans he was a shining example, a teenager who fought to flee Cuba for America's freedom, and won his fight. That is the truth of Jose.

To Marlins fans he was the star and shining light, as exciting leaning over a dugout railing as throwing 100 mph. He was a reason to love the team. That is the truth, too.

But so is this. He wrote the last chapter of his own life with a deadly excess of overindulgence and terrible decisions. That the tragedy might have been even bigger is chilling. He'd invited a few teammates on that late-night ride, but, with a game the next day that would never be played, all (including Ozuna) said no.

In time, the memorial outside the ballpark will be gone. So will the uniform patches. So will the clubhouse locker frozen behind glass. And, barring a change of heart, there will never be a statue. There will just be a franchise, moving on.

In time we will all be free to remember Jose Fernandez exactly as we wish, in whatever way feels right, and fair.

One year later, I remember a young man who was so thrilled that day he became a U.S. citizen, and I remember that smile, and I remember a player who breathed fire on the mound and threw smoke. But can one separate from that the man who ultimately caused such sorrow by his own hand?

There was so much to love, and to admire.

But on the legacy there is a shadow, and on the memory a stain.

And they will not go away.

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