As you know by now, the world lost Jose Fernandez on Sunday. Here at FanGraphs, we wanted to offer those affiliated with us an opportunity to remember Fernandez in their own way. We have collected those remembrances, and would like to share them with you, as we all mourn Fernandez’s passing together.
I cannot say that I truly knew Jose Fernandez. We spoke once, directly, and once as part of a post-game interview scrum. But I can say that our paths crossed, and that I was graced with his personal energy, which was impossible to miss if you spent more than 30 seconds in the same room as him, and for that, I am grateful.
The first thing that stuck out to me about Jose Fernandez were his arms. He walked around the clubhouse in a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, and his arms were massive. But not in the way that, perhaps, his teammate Giancarlo Stanton’s arms were massive. No, Fernandez’s arms were massive and flabby. Massive in the way a 15-year-old high school offensive lineman’s arms might be. Myself and another sportswriter in the Marlins’ visiting clubhouse at Progressive Field each immediately took notice of this as he walked past us, and turned to one another as if to say “Really?” once he was at his locker.
Once inside the locker room, Jose bided time before the game at one of the two stand-up, arcade-style video game machines, playing the original Super Mario. Fernandez moved his entire body with the direction of the joysticks, shouting and cursing at the screen as his character repeatedly fell to its death. Fernandez was not surrounded by a group of teammates. He was not putting on a show. He was simply competing against the goombahs the way he competed against batters, and truly enjoying every second of it.
Later, back outside the locker room, Fernandez struck up a conversation with an Indians’ clubhouse attendant about the deluxe Keurig coffee machine available to visiting players in the clubhouse. This particular Keurig machine possessed some feature which I gathered was uncommon among the coffee machines of other visiting clubhouses, and Fernandez was elated. He posted up shop at the coffee machine, sipping his hot brew while exuberantly informing every member of his team that walked by of the features of this particular Keurig coffee machine.
These three observations of Fernandez occurred within a one-hour span just three weeks ago. In one hour, Fernandez turned heads with his imposing frame, effortlessly commanded attention in the locker room while playing video games, and was able to find joy in a coffee machine. I feel honored to have these memories of Jose Fernandez, and I will remember him as the hulking man with the childlike arms, screaming at video games and getting more excited about shitty Keurig coffee than I could have ever imagined.
I keep wanting to be able to identify the lesson of Jose Fernandez. That way, out of this tragedy, we’d have at least some way of carrying a part of him with us. If there were something for us to take away, then Fernandez could never die. He’d be alive in our hearts and our spirits, and the easiest thing to do would be to point to the exuberance with which he lived his life. Should we not strive to live as he did? Fernandez was the quintessence of a role model.
There’s a problem there, though. It’s not as simple as following Fernandez’s lead. By and large we can’t just pick up where Fernandez left off. His ebullience was atypical, as much nature as nurture. He had a greater capacity for happiness, such that he never ran low on reserves, and most could never achieve the total joy that Fernandez woke up with each morning. The light in his heart was always shining. Most of us, sometimes, can turn on our lights. But they flicker and die. This is just how most of the lights get installed, but somehow, some way, Fernandez was an exception.
He seemed as rare a person as he was an arm, and this is what sinks us to ever deeper depths. Memories are what we have to take with us, but there is the utter absence of any lessons. There’s nothing about Jose Fernandez for you to try to apply to your own life moving forward. Around the game, other pitchers can’t just start throwing Jose Fernandez’s pitches. And outside of the game, we could never dream of living as he lived. Most lights don’t stay shining, and most lights don’t shine so bright. In our best moments, we might understand how Jose Fernandez approached every second.
We can’t learn to experience the world as Fernandez did. We can only be thankful to have been touched by his radiance. Though it’s impossible to say for how long the world will know that it misses him, we’ll know until our own end times that something is missing.
In April 2014, my wife, daughter and I traveled to Atlanta to tour Emory University. While we were there, we went to Turner Field and saw Jose Fernandez out-duel Alex Wood in a 1-0 Marlins win. After allowing a single to the first hitter he faced, Fernandez retired 20 of the next 21 — 12 via strikeout — with the only blemish an E5. On multiple occasions, I’ve told people it might be the most dominating performance I’ve ever seen from a pure-stud standpoint. Braves batters were simply overmatched.
This past June, the Marlins came to Phoenix for a three-game set with the Diamondbacks. It was just after the draft. I had devolved, as I do annually at that time of year, into a haggard, surly mess. Because I was gassed, I did not go see Jose Fernandez pitch in that series (I had not seen him before that) and as such I have no story to share about that night, a night in which he struck out eight over six innings. Nor any other night.
As we sit here mourning the loss of a 24-year-old man and lament the moments of greatness he and his right arm can no longer give to the world, we are reminded of the fragility of our own lives and the importance of living with passion and purpose. I had forgotten that when the Marlins came to town in June. It is with a sickening irony that it is the death of Fernandez, a young man who so clearly embodied that maxim not only with his love of baseball but his love for life itself, is what has caused us all to reflect on such things.
The thought I keep coming back to is that, as people who were lucky enough to experience the joy of watching Jose Fernandez play baseball, we are now responsible for carrying on his legacy and telling his story. The lessons he taught us must continue to be taught.
This is going to take me a while to process. It’s hitting me pretty hard.
The thing about being 18 is that you haven’t seen as much as most other people. I kind of resent the fact that I never got to see, say, prime Pedro or Griffey. Jose was what I imagined those guys being like. True greatness is rare, and when it does come along – like it did for those people – you really need to appreciate it. I’ve been a baseball fan my entire life, but Jose Fernandez was one of the people I first learned to really appreciate for their greatness.
I used to think that I appreciated Fernandez’s greatness because of how fun he was to watch pitch, but that’s only part of it. Fernandez, I now realize, reminds me of why I love baseball so much: because he loved baseball so much. I’ve never seen anybody have as much fun doing anything; you’d think that people playing a game for a living would all be the way Fernandez was, but he brought it to a whole different level. We’ve all seen the video of him catching the Tulo liner, and of him celebrating after that Stanton homer. Fernandez lived Bryce Harper’s “make baseball fun again” every single day.
And now that all of that is gone, there is such an enormous hole in the sport. Forget about not being able to watch a kid who was on track for a Hall of Fame career, the personality he brought to the Marlins and to baseball in general is irreplaceable. And the reason why this is hitting me so hard, I think, is because part of me fears that I’ll never again see a player as dominant, fun, and lovable as Jose Fernandez, because I never have before.
I just semi-joined Fangraphs so sorry if this ridiculously sad topic is my introduction to most of you, but I would like to say one thing about Jose. Almost everything else about him has been said, but I would like to reiterate that he played the game the way I want to watch it be played. He epitomized what baseball should be, to me. I know some people believe in the sanctity of unwritten rules and the stolid persona many MLB players and fans celebrate, but I think Jose Fernandez was the best counter-argument to that belief system that ever existed.
He showed why emotion and sport cannot and should not be separated from each other. And on a more delicate note, he showed why the unbridled enthusiasm and emotional vulnerability that is largely kept alive by Latin players (exemplified by Jose’s unabashed love of family) has lifted the game to its greatest heights. No other player’s death would make me instantly think of calling my grandma, but Jose Fernandez’ did, and I’m grateful that a human being as special as he was a part of all of our lives.
Right, Ruben — Jose played the game how I (we) wanted to watch it be played. And speaking to the unwritten rules: I can’t imagine any player who respected the game more than Jose. We don’t need to bring this to a poll. Jose didn’t play baseball, the sport; he played baseball, the game. He played it, dominated it, uniquely, like no one we’ve ever seen, and he loved it equally so. He could pay no greater respect to baseball than by embodying all the reasons we grew up loving baseball in the first place.
Because there’s respect out of trepidation — the unwritten rules, if you will — and there’s respect out of adoration/admiration. Jose was “Make Baseball Fun Again” before, and without, the hat and campaign. He was the campaign, whether you were with him or not. It seemed to make no difference to him anyway. He existed at the intersection of eminence and exuberance. He was transcendent.
I was lucky enough to see Jose Fernandez pitch in high school, a memorable experience that’s become even more unforgettable knowing that I won’t see him pitch again.
It was in October of 2010 during Perfect Game’s WWBA World Championship held in Jupiter, FL, one of the most heavily scouted amateur events in the country, and sure enough there was an army of golf carts (scouts’ primary mode of transportation at this event) parked behind the backstop. There were other games happening simultaneously on the surrounding fields, but it was clear that the baby-faced Cuban righty and his teammates on a prospect-loaded FTB Mizuno/Cardinals scout team – Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez, Henry Owens, Jesse Winker, Dan Vogelbach and Tyler Marlette – were the main attraction based on the number of scouts in attendance. And Fernandez, just as he proved numerous times in the years that followed, knew how to entertain a crowd.
I don’t remember as many details from this game as I’d like, but having sat a few feet from home plate, the action of his pitches are ingrained in my mind’s eye. I won’t forget the arm-side life on his fastball that reached 97 mph, the best velocity of the event. I won’t forget the vicious bite on his slider that coerced hopeless swings from high schoolers who had never seen a pitch like that before. He threw a changeup. He threw strikes. I won’t forget how he made it all look so easy. And while I don’t remember his final numbers from this game, I won’t forget how dominant he was. It was among the most electric performances as I’ve seen from a high-school pitcher, and I think that many of the scouts who saw him pitch that day would tell you the same. That day in Jupiter, it was Jose Day.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.