The date was April 7, 2013. The pitcher for the Mets was up-and-coming ace Matt Harvey. The opposing pitcher for the Marlins was some 21-year-old kid named José Fernández. I was at that game because I wanted to spend a Sunday with my brothers, but Fernández stole the show, going 5.0 innings with three hits, one run and an impressive eight strikeouts. The Mets ended up winning the game 4-3 on a walk-off from Marlon Byrd (yes, Marlon Byrd was a Met once).
I remember just about every single Mets game that I have ever been to, and I’ll be honest when I say that the one thing I remembered from that game was the walk-off and the Mets playing “Surfing Bird” on the way out of the park. But upon thinking about it all again, I realize just how important that game was. Not for the Mets, not for me, not for my brothers; but for the Marlins, for baseball, and for a young man named José Fernández.
Fernández was, in a word, infectious. Not only was he a young phenom in the literal sense, but he was very much a kid at heart. In a time when celebratory antics were often shut down by umpires, fans and players alike, Fernández reminded the league that it’s okay to have fun, it’s okay to laugh, and there is nothing arrogant about it. José’s composure was childlike and joyous; but that is not to say that it was without passion and talent.
José’s talent was something previously unseen in baseball. He was able to fire fastballs at 99 mph, sling sliders at 91 mph and drop changeups at 85 mph. In his four-year career, he had clearly emerged as one of baseball’s most elite pitchers, and despite the circumstances is in legitimate contention for the Cy Young Award this year.
Reflecting solely upon José’s talent would be doing him a tremendous disservice. José dedicated his time and money to cancer research. He carved space out of his hectic schedule to spend time with kids. Best of all, he made sure to treat all of the tens of thousands of people who he had come across in his lifetime with an incredible amount of respect and unparalleled grace.
José Fernández was, by all accounts, an enemy to my favorite team. Every game in which he started was all but an automatic loss for any opposing team. But I have seen Fernández pitch much more than most people probably have, and I find it absolutely gut-wrenching just how much of an impact his passing had on me.
He was a human being who escaped Cuba after three attempts at age 15. He risked everything just to come here and play the game he cherished so deeply. He had a mother and grandmother who were his whole world. He had a wife who is pregnant with their first child. He had a new family at Marlins Park, on the field and in the stands. He was finally thriving. He had finally found his place.
But one little accident and it suddenly disappeared. José has touched me in a tremendous way, even though he wasn’t on my team and didn’t know I even existed. He was inspiring. His laugh, his smile, his opportunistic attitude toward life and people despite his traumatic childhood is nothing short of heartwarming. It was always like he knew something the rest of us didn’t. Like some wacky secret about living a happy life. He showed it through his actions, especially how he conducted himself on the field. He was kind, gentle and charismatic, but he never strayed away from the seriousness of any given game.
The difference was that he was truly grateful for everything he had. He appreciated the fact that he was still breathing and was healthy enough to be able to take the mound every fifth day. His gratitude for the life he lived translated to baseball in the simplest way possible: He was never nervous. He was only ever excited.
What kind of impact could an untouchable superstar like José have on my life? I’m a college student in Connecticut, he was a Cuban pitcher based in Miami. Quite frankly, people who say that reacting so strongly to the death of athletes and celebrities is pointless may simply not understand. People don’t have to be directly involved in your life in order to have an impact. José was the first person to ever show me that.
Everyone should strive to live their life like José did. Life is all too short, and there isn’t any time to hold grudges, to make people feel like dirt, to be doubted. Everyone deserves a chance because everybody deserves a life worth living; a life filled with unbridled joy and surrounded by people who love and care about you.
José showed me this. He showed me what it looks like to be filled with so much passion that it makes everyone jealous. He showed me what a happy, thankful life looks like. I want to make sure that everybody in my life can feel my passions in the way I talk and the things I do. I want to make people feel loved and appreciated as often as possible, because it can all go away in the blink of an eye. There’s not enough time in life to mess around with this stuff. There isn’t enough time to be afraid. I’m just sorry that it took the death of José for me to realize this.
When I woke up on Sunday morning, I got notified of news that hit me harder than I could have imagined. The passing of 24-year-old Miami Marlins ace José Fernández isn’t just a great loss of talent, but a gigantic loss for his family, friends and the baseball community. His kindness and infectious passion for life is something much bigger than the game of baseball.
I tried to explain the scope of his impact on me and on baseball, but words cannot do him justice. Fernández was larger than life; his enthusiasm, his talent and, most of all, his joy for the game of baseball and life itself are qualities that are seen only once in a lifetime. It’s with a heavy heart that we face the reality that this lifetime was much too short.