September 28, 2016
Loving and Learning From Jose Fernandez
Jose Fernandez wasn’t just a great pitcher, he was a symbol that held so much meaning, not just to everyone in baseball, but to many people in the Miami community and around the world. We didn’t just lose a star athlete too soon, we lost an all-encompassing asset to all our lives. Fernandez helped us see parts of ourselves, he reflected parts of us--such as our love for the game--that for some, has gotten lost in the translation of adulthood, and he has opened our eyes to ways in which we can improve our quality of life through pride, joy, innocence, and selflessness.
My awareness of Fernandez as anything more than a Cuban rookie pitcher who was taking the National League by storm was minimal in 2013. The intriguing young star piqued my interest for the very first time after this incident, Fernandez’s first big -eague home run, and what followed.
I was, and still somewhat am, a baseball conservative. Showboating and pimping home runs have never been something I fully support, because often these gestures may come off as everything from facetious to arrogant to just plain inappropriate. But on this particular day, I saw these moments for what they truly can mean at their core. The context behind them, and the feeling that inspires this type of reaction that I, as someone who will never play the game at the professional level, will never empathize with. I was Brian McCann, and on this evening, Fernandez lit up my tunnel vision. I was fascinated.
One day that November, I came home from work to my mom asking me if I knew who Jose Fernandez was. I could tell from her hasty presentation of the question that it was rhetorical--she was waiting for me to say “yes, why?” so she could move on to the next piece of information up her sleeve. Probing me like the teacher she was, she asked if I knew anything about his family life, while queuing up a video on her iPhone. It was the video of Fernandez and his abuela reuniting for the first time since Fernandez’s successful escape from Cuba at age 15.
My perception of Fernandez changed that evening. Not only was he one of the most incredible rookie phenoms to take the mound since I began watching baseball, but his story of coming to America to play the game he loved, that his family loved, and sacrificing so much for something Americans take for granted—freedom—was inspiring. I was fascinated and obsessed with the synergy of a baseball story and a human interest story that was compelling on levels I had not experienced as a fan before.
Throughout the 2013 offseason, our fandom and obsession with the Fernandez story grew. The Marlins had a three-game series scheduled at Wrigley Field on Fourth of July weekend, and I had hoped that the baseball Gods would be kind enough to let Fernandez have a start so I could be in attendance. But baseball had other plans; namely, an elbow injury that sent Fernandez to the disabled list and eventually led to Tommy John surgery.
I stood in my kitchen and cried in a way I’d never cried over something that, to the average onlooker, seemed trivial and childish. But it felt like more than that. It was the first time baseball truly broke my heart. I’d watched the White Sox get knocked out of the ALDS in 2008, but that wasn’t nearly as personal or heartbreaking to me as this. This was the first time baseball didn’t feel fair. I wouldn’t see Fernandez again for a whole year. There was always 2015, I would just have to wait, again, and see him then. But when the Marlins came back to Wrigley Field in 2015, he didn’t make a start.
My mom did something for me that I sorely miss since her passing just a few months before the conclusion of the 2014 season—she kept me a fan. She was a fan in every sense of the word. Fiery. Irrational at times. Joyful. Pained. She felt things that working in baseball take away from you. But one look at her watching a Red Sox game brought me back to being 15 and as wonderstruck by baseball itself as I was seven years later by Jose Fernandez.
After my mom’s passing, life became busy, and my fandom didn’t have its support system anymore. I didn’t pay attention to the Marlins' schedule in 2016. After all the shenanigans that team had been through over the years, and with Fernandez settling in as one of the best pitchers in baseball, my fascination lost its immediate appeal, and fell to the back of my mind.
On August 2, while the Marlins were in town for their lone visit to the Friendly Confines, I casually checked the matchups for the day as I always do only to notice this was it—the first time I would be able to see Fernandez pitch in person. Two years ago this day would have been a holiday in my mind. But life and the neglect of my fandom got in my way yet again. Hours before I left for work I wrestled with the idea of taking the day off, for old time's sake, and going to watch Fernandez pitch. I could see myself with a scorecard in one hand and an overpriced beer in the other, taking in the evening. But the adult in me decided that this would have been the irrational and irresponsible thing to do, so I brushed it off and went to work. At least I would be at the ballpark, I thought.
That evening, as I quickly realized it was already almost the fifth inning, I moseyed through Gate D and walked the concourse at Wrigley Field on my way to my post outside Gate K. But before I got there, I stood just behind the first baseline, just to take a peak. I wasn’t entirely dead inside, the baseball person in me still wanted to see Fernandez pitch. I saw him in person for the first time and I was taken back. The giddy little girl in me popped out for just a second as I smiled when I saw the lanky hurler on the mound through the net. I watched him for half an inning, and let my eyes follow him as he strolled back to the dugout before I went on my way.
When I woke up on Sunday morning and found out the news, I’d never been more shell shocked in my life. My mom had been the only death I’d ever really dealt with, and that was something I was certain was coming. I was prepared for months. I had accepted it before its inevitable arrival. Hearing the words “Jose Fernandez died” were foreign to me. I felt something that was likely not commonplace among everyone else hearing those words. Regret. Regret that I got too busy. Regret that I neglected my fandom. My mom wouldn’t have let me do that.
When someone in your life dies, you always wish you’d gotten that cup of coffee. Or made it to that birthday party you were too tired for. Or sent that text message you meant to send. I didn’t have those luxuries with Fernandez, none of us did, but I wish I’d made time to sit at the ballpark and let the energy of someone whose childlike love and wonder for the game take me back to a time when I felt the same. A time to write in my scorecard and not worry about the fact that Fernandez gave up three earned runs or walked two men on that August evening, but to sit and say “hey, that’s him!” and be content with just that joy.
Fortunately, I didn’t need any of that to feel what Fernandez made me, or you, or any of us feel. He stood on a mound for all of us to see, whether it be on TV or in person, for all of us to learn from, and for all of us to marvel at. He gave us plenty to talk about while he was here, he gave us plenty to bond over while he is gone, and for years to come he will give us and everyone in baseball, every American immigrant, and everyone who shared a joy for life, stories to tell, things to learn. All you can do in times of loss is learn something about life and yourself. What I learned was to never let life get in the way of living.