He reminded us why José Fernández loved the game so much.
José Fernández passed away in a tragic boating accident this past Sunday, leaving the entire baseball world shellshocked. After canceling their regularly scheduled game against the Atlanta Braves in light of the disaster, the entire Miami Marlins organization came together in grief to mourn the loss of a star that shone so bright on all of them.
Perhaps the lasting image from Sunday, September 26, 2016 will be second baseman Dee Gordon crouching over the mound at an empty Marlins Park in utter disbelief, tearfully looking down at a superimposed “16” with a lone Miami hat atop the rubber. In that moment, he embodied how all of baseball felt on one of the game’s darkest days.
Just 24 hours removed from unspeakable loss, the Marlins came back to the diamond, undoubtedly emotionally drained and still reeling without the lifeblood of their team. During a touching pregame tribute, both dugouts spilled onto the diamond for a simple instrumental rendition of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” Following a brief montage of Fernández on the video board, the entire Marlins team knelt at the mound, rubbing the dirt from it on their jerseys.
And then, just like that, it was back to the game.
But this was not one of those times when baseball offered an escape from a catastrophic reality. Fernández’s death cast a pall over Marlins Park. His effervescence was tangibly absent. There were no loud expressions of joy from the crowd, no constant clapping in the dugouts. Everyone understood that this time, the game was merely a formality — a footnote to a much longer eulogy.
The Mets batted in the top half of the first, snagging a hit, but otherwise going down quietly. Then, Dee Gordon came to the plate.
Normally, a left-handed batter, Gordon took his place in the right-hand batter’s box, as a small homage to the right-handed hitting Fernández. After taking a ball outside, Gordon quickly switched to his traditional spot. One pitch later, he did it.
Really, it was ordinary. He caught a ball out over the plate and launched it up into the second deck of the right field bleachers. But so much about it was extraordinary.
Notably, Dee Gordon had not hit a home run in 2016. For his career, he only had eight longballs. At 5-foot-11, 170 pounds the likelihood of Gordon notching a homer, let alone a second-decker, was optimistically miniscule.
Then, of course, there came the magnitude of the situation. On a day where the game’s headline might’ve read more closely to an obituary than a recap, Gordon changed the narrative, ever so slightly, but positively.
And finally, there was the emotion. It flooded the stadium, but nowhere was it as present as it was on Gordon himself, who couldn’t make it around the basepaths without choking up. Upon reaching home plate, he gave an extended look up to the sky as he tapped his heart. He eventually reached the dugout where he was greeted, not with high-fives and pats on the back, but with long hugs and teary eyes. He made his way through the line of people before retreating to his own space.
The Marlins won the game 7-3. But it doesn’t really matter. Even for the Mets, who are in the midst of a tense Wild Card race, last night’s contest was far more than a tally in the win column. Sometimes baseball’s moments far outweigh the game itself.
Take Mike Piazza’s post-9/11 home run for example. Or David Ortiz’s grand slam during Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS just months after the Boston Marathon Bombings. Both instances wherein a single act stood symbolically for so much more — helping so many begin to achieve closure.
So too is the case with Dee Gordon’s home run. It’s such an improbable scenario, it almost seems supernatural. But it stands as a testament to humanity.
After the game, Gordon said he had never even hit a ball to the second deck during batting practice. And yet, when you saw it happen, a small part of you wasn’t surprised. Maybe it was because Fernández regularly flirted with the improbable. Or perhaps because his love of the game rubbed off so prominently upon his teammates.
Occasionally, baseball goes out of its way to give you exactly what’s necessary. This time, it went above and beyond.