The lens that I watch baseball through has shifted many times. Growing up, the game was a thing I aspired to, a dream for my future. Somewhere along that path, the internet became a thing, and somehow, I ended up seeing baseball as a thing to write about, as I found community with other fans while I lived thousands of miles from where I grew up. Most recently, the way I see the game has begun to evolve again, as I have a son headed towards his second birthday, and I wonder what our relationship to baseball will be. Frequently, now, I think about how I’m going to introduce him to baseball, and what parts of the game might draw him in.
Yesterday, the idea of showing my son how fun baseball can be got a bit more daunting, as the game lost its seminal ambassador for the sport as an opportunity to experience unbridled enjoyment. Yesterday, my son lost the opportunity to watch Jose Fernandez. Not just to watch Jose Fernandez pitch, but more importantly, to watch Jose Fernandez love the game of baseball.
I present Exhibit A, which you’ve probably seen a thousand times before, but never gets old, and will now make me cry every time I see it.
That wasn’t Fernandez’s reaction to winning a World Series, or making the postseason. That wasn’t even Fernandez’s reaction to winning a ballgame. That was Fernandez reacting to a Giancarlo Stanton home run that tied a game in mid-July of 2013, a day on which the Marlins entered play 34-57, the worst record in the National League. This was Fernandez celebrating the chance to go to extra innings in a game that, for all intents and purposes, didn’t matter. Jose Fernandez celebrated a home run he did not hit, in a mostly meaningless game, during a lost season, with more enthusiasm than I have ever celebrated anything in my life.
That is among the most genuine expressions of joy I have ever witnessed, in any context. There’s just no faking that kind of unbridled response. That reaction was a portrait of who Fernandez was, and I’m devastated that we’ll never get to see it again. Can you imagine what it would have been like to watch Fernandez win a postseason game? Win a World Series?
I can. I can imagine watching my son watch Fernandez pitch, and seeing him fall in love with baseball not because Fernandez was a remarkable talent — though he absolutely was that — but because Fernandez would show him that baseball was worth falling in love with. Could show him that baseball could be the most fun game on earth. The most fun thing on earth.
I will have to continue to imagine that, because we’ll never get to see it. My son will never get to see Fernandez pitch live. More tragically, Fernandez’s own unborn child won’t get to even meet their father, maybe the most heartbreaking fact of this whole heartbreaking story. We’re losing Fernandez as a baseball player and a source of joy; his family is losing something much more than that.
If you haven’t seen it yet, watch this video about Fernandez’s reunion with his grandmother. Warning: it’s going to make you cry even more.
I cannot imagine the pain they must be going through right now, the loss they must feel. It dwarfs any loss we have, those of us who didn’t actually get to know him except through a screen. But Fernandez’s joy was so unrestricted that even a screen couldn’t keep us from feeling it.
And that joy for life and love of the game itself — more than the breaking ball that no one could hit, more than the strikeouts, more than the pure dominance as one of the best pitchers we’ve ever seen — is the legacy Fernandez really leaves behind. And that is what I am going to tell my son about Jose Fernandez. Not that we were lucky enough to see a superlative talent take the field for too short a time, but that we were given a walking reminder of what it is like to genuinely enjoy the life we are given.
Of all the stories about Fernandez, and the great memories of time spent with him from those who knew the man behind the smile, one hit me harder than the rest. And it’s just a simple picture, but I can’t stop seeing it.
This is my favorite photo. I took it after he got a W vs Dodgers. He grabbed chair, watched fireworks. A big leaguer but always kid at heart pic.twitter.com/QwDzQ1sKCx
— Allison Williams (@AllisonW_Sports) September 25, 2016
Fireworks got old for me a while ago, but they obviously never got old for Jose Fernandez. And I’m jealous of that, in a good way. I can’t throw 100 or spin a breaking ball like Fernandez, but I can enjoy the small things in life the way he did. And I can tell my son that this is the kind of passion for life that is worth admiring.
Fernandez’s enthusiasm and joy are what we all need more of in our lives, and what baseball needs more of in its future. As Harry Pavlidis said on Twitter today:
we need a ‘player who most embodies the spirit and joy of baseball’ award named for Jose. Give it to Adrian Beltre this year.
— Harry Pavlidis (@harrypav) September 25, 2016
Fernandez and Beltre are the best of what baseball offers. For all the “play the game the right way” arguments, there is no better way to play baseball than the way Beltre plays it, and Fernandez played it: with a genuine enjoyment of the sport we all love, and no desire to withhold that joy from anyone watching. We were lucky enough to get Beltre long enough that he’ll end up enshrined in Cooperstown, and generations of baseball fans to come will get to hear stories of how much fun he made the game.
Fernandez might have joined him someday; he certainly had Hall of Fame talent. But now, it’s on us to keep Fernandez’s spirit alive, to pass on his infectious love of the game. And so, when my son gets old enough to watch baseball, we’re going to go on MLB.com, and we’re going to watch Fernandez pitch together. And we’re going to watch Fernandez rob Troy Tulowitzki of a base hit. We’re going to watch Fernandez hit a home run and admire it.
And when we see the Braves get angry about Fernandez enjoying his first career home run a little too much for their taste, we’re going to watch Fernandez react like this.
And we’re going to laugh together, as Fernandez laughed then. And I’m going to teach my son that it’s much better to be the guy who enjoys life too much than to be the guy trying to enforce the perceived proper enjoyment level upon others.
I won’t have Jose Fernandez around to help teach those lessons in real time, but Fernandez’s passion for life and baseball did not end yesterday. I’m crushed that we’ll never get to see him play again, and heartbroken for his family, but I’m excited to tell my son about the guy who reminded me that baseball is worth loving. I’m excited for Jose Fernandez to still show my son that life is enjoyable.
Thank you for your gift, Jose. I only wish we got more of it.
A brief note from Jeff Passan, which seems too important to not mention.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) September 25, 2016
If we want to honor Fernandez, perhaps the best thing we can do is support the cause he supported.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.