José Fernández died this Sunday in a boating accident, and for some reason, I feel compelled to write about it.
I wish I can say that I had some relationship with him, but I didn’t. I am not a Marlins fan or a Cuban native; I don’t get awestruck by baseball, so the brief highlights I do see of him have not instilled the prestige and aura many others see in him. I can make parallels of course — perhaps infer the idea that watching Fernández pitch was the equivalence to seeing King Felix dominate with his curve, or Russell Wilson escape from a broken pocket, but even then, that doesn’t feel right. The thrill of greatness is that it’s impossible to understand until you’ve experienced it yourself.
I want to say that I feel compelled to write about his death because of how young he was. Being only two years younger than him, it’s obvious that the bluntness of this tragedy has made me reflect on my own life. But there are no mistakes to be learned from here, no lessons to underline: You want to look for something to blame, some catalyst, some malicious element that can justify the anger and confusion you feel from death. You vainly search for the clues that could’ve foreshadowed such tragedy, as if the satisfaction can help you grieve.
But there is nothing. There was no evidence of alcohol or drugs, nothing but the random unpredictability of nature. José Fernández died last Sunday in a boating accident, and now we don’t know what to do.
This much I know is true: José Fernández was born on July 31, 1992 in Santa Clara, Cuba to Ramón and Maritza Jimenez. He had a stepsister named Yadeni. When he was 14, he attempted his first defection from Cuba and was promptly sent to jail. The next year, he finally made it through to Mexico with his family and settled down in Tampa with the rest of his family. At 19, he was drafted with the 14th overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft. He spent one league year in the minors — pitching a no-hitter in the process — before making his professional debut with the Marlins in 2013 at the age of 21.
Fernández had a historic first season for a starting pitcher, earning himself Rookie of the Year and All-Star honors in the process. Between 2014 and 2015, injuries caught up with him, forcing him to undergo Tommy John surgery. Earlier this year, he was in the midst of playing his best season in the majors, logging career bests in strikeouts and innings pitched. He made his last professional start seven days ago when he threw an eight-inning shutout, en route to a 1-0 win.
This much I can infer: Fernández, like any other twenty-something, often lost himself in thinking about the future. He wondered at times if the Marlins, only 4.5 games away from a Wild Card spot, could make it to the playoffs. Sometimes he wondered what life would be like when he turned 30, and how he would successfully transition as a power pitcher when many others before him have failed. Sometimes he thought of his partner, of his family and grandmother, of the challenges and strength required to raise a child.
Sometimes he thought about his own identity. When you type in his name on Google News, you’re flooded with articles devoted to understanding his defection. The reflections he had of his journey are humbling and honest. But there is one headline that stands out among the rest. In April 2015, Fernández became a U.S. citizen and was the keynote speaker for the naturalization ceremony in South Florida.
“This is one of my important accomplishments,” he told USA Today. “I’m an American citizen now — I’m one of them. I consider myself now to be free.”
The many smiles I see upon a Google Image search of Fernández show him to be a joyful, go-lucky presence, so it’s easy to assume that he, like all those who live their dreams and enjoy their careers, was happy.
“It’s like, you tell someone, ‘Hey, I’m going to work today.’ ‘Oh yeah? What are you going to do?’ And you say, ‘I get to do whatever I want.’ Can you believe that? We get one day a week where we can do whatever we want. How many people can say that?”
We both know that one’s life cannot be summarized in a few paragraphs. We both know, from our own experiences, that life is unique and complex and confusing as hell. We both know what it means to be holding on to something so precious and pure, and to retell anyone’s life as a memory — no matter how accurate or emotional we make it — will undoubtedly fail to capture the essence of the fragile beauty we found in them in the first place. And it saddens me that, in the future, when the game has passed and the wounds are healed and the last vestiges of memory have faded, the tale of José Fernández might be reduced to a two-sentence parable of regret, to a sonnet of hypotheticals and a what-could-have-been.
There will be some who wonder if the outpouring of coverage and condolences devoted to Fernández’s death in the oncoming days are necessary. Some will question if the descriptions used to mourn him are too exaggerated for a professional baseball player. Others will argue against the laziness of reducing his passing to a trending hashtag on Twitter. Some will be determined to move on and focus on the postseason race, while others will be desperate in holding on to whatever impressions he left behind. Some will remind themselves of Nick Adenhart, Greg Halman, Oscar Taveras and the many others who have also died young in their pursuits. Others will grieve and mourn, and ultimately all of us will realize that life — and baseball — will go on amidst the unfathomable.
José Fernández has died, and regardless of how you feel, understand that he — like many others — represented something more than just a baseball player. And in his brief but wondrous life, he has carried the hopes and dreams of many: he was a symbol and an inspiration. That much deserves to be respected, praised and discussed. It’s something that people like you and me don’t — and probably never will — understand. All we can do — and maybe all we can ever do — is acknowledge the strength it takes to hold on to this burden and the way he carried it upon his shoulders. All we can do is aspire to someday do the same.