Years down the road, we will remember Jose Fernandez as a man who was taken from the earth far too soon.
At the age of 24, he barely scratched the surface of his potential and was destined to be one of baseball’s brightest stars.
We will remember him as the man with a blazing fastball and unhittable changeup, and as a true strikeout machine.
We’ll never forget the numbers and achievements, but above all, we will never forget the joy he possessed every time he laced up his cleats and stepped on the diamond.
There was no second-guessing that he wanted to play the game of baseball. Anyone could tell by the swagger in his step and the smile on his face that he was having just as much fun as the fans in the stands.
As baseball fans, we celebrate players such as Bartolo Colón, Johnny Cueto and the adorable duo of Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre because they never forgot how to have fun. These players aren’t robots programmed solely to entertain but human beings who loved playing the game just as much as we enjoyed watching.
Fernandez was the living embodiment of the children who grew up playing baseball in their backyards. That inner child never left Fernandez, and it showed in the way he played, and he reminded us why we liked baseball in the first place.
One of my favorite moments of Fernandez’s career that exemplified his joy on the field came back in 2013, when he took the mound against the Colorado Rockies. In the top of the first inning, Troy Tulowitzki smashed a 97 mile per hour fastball up the middle, but Fernandez quickly stuck his glove up and made the snag, then quickly snapped his glove down to his leg in a show of dominance.
Tulowitzki, who didn’t have time to take more than two steps out of the batter’s box, looked at Fernandez in utter disbelief and asked, “Did you just catch that?” Fernandez looked at Tulowitzki and flashed a childlike smile.
Moments like this made us fall in love with Fernandez. He wasn’t interested in the game for the money or the fame but because he wanted to be there and compete against the best of the best.
Yet, we didn’t fall in love with Hernandez simply because he was a man with a golden arm and a smile that could light up a room. We fell in love with him because of his story off the field.
Before Fernandez was old enough to apply for a driving permit, his mother and he risked their lives to come to America. After unsuccessfully trying to defect from Cuba three times, Fernandez, at the age of 15, and his mother successfully escaped their home country and reached Mexico, but not before a near tragedy.
During the boat ride, Fernandez’s mother fell overboard into the Gulf of Mexico. Without hesitation, Fernandez jumped into the water, grabbed his mother with his left arm, then paddled back to the boat with his right.
After 15 minutes of swimming, Fernandez reached the ship and a rope pulled them up to safety. Fernandez and his mother would eventually reach Tampa, Florida, where he had the opportunity to blossom into the eventual 14th pick of the 2011 draft.
Years after defecting to the United States, Fernandez had the opportunity to reunite with his grandmother and the two famously hugged and shed tears in the Miami Marlins’ locker room.
We never saw Fernandez as just another ballplayer but as a human being who fulfilled his childhood dream and had a smile every step of the way
Coming from Cuba, a place that offered no future nor solace for the young Fernandez, it made sense why he possessed so much joy every time he stepped on a big league diamond. When Fernandez stepped on the diamond, he never wanted to be anywhere else in the world. Baseball was his livelihood, and the field was his home.
Now, not only has the gift of baseball been ripped from his grasp but so has the gift of life.
Fernandez was a joy to watch, and his tragic death will not be one that we will forget anytime soon. Thank you for the memories, Jose Fernandez. Rest in peace.
Justice delos Santos covers women’s golf. Contact him at [email protected]