Jose Fernandez, former Greensboro Grasshopper, was one of baseball’s brightest stars
The “old-timers” were the ones Major League Baseball’s players and fans expected to be saying goodbye to in this, the 2016 schedule’s final week before the playoffs — David Ortiz, the 40-year-old slugger of the Boston Red Sox; and 88-year-old Vin Scully, the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers; and oh, how wonderful both are still with us to do what they do, and oh, how much we wish neither needed to leave.
Instead, it is one of the sport’s youngest, brightest, happiest, heartiest stars everybody is saying goodbye to — Jose Fernandez, just 24, a phenomenally good pitcher for the Miami Marlins with a sky’s-the-limit future, found dead from a boating accident Sunday morning in South Florida, a short boat ride from his native Cuba.
Shock waves vibrated through baseball, and many immediately took to Twitter to express their grief:
Ortiz: “I don’t have the words to describe the pain I feel for the loss of my friend Jose.”
Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals: “Absolutely crushed and shocked at the news about Jo-Fez.”
Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers, his fellow Cuban: “Hermano, wherever you are, you know how much I loved you.”
On and on, one by one, the people who populate the baseball world found themselves unable to concentrate on the upcoming World Series or which players might end up playing in it. Members of the Marlins, disappointed by the increasing likelihood that they will miss the playoffs , didn’t understand what true pain felt like until they woke Sunday to the news that Jose Fernandez was gone.
What a gem on and off the diamond he was. His pitching dazzled everyone. His personality tickled everyone. He was fun and funny and self-confident to the max. In 2012, he was still a beginner, dividing his time between the Greensboro (N.C.) Grasshoppers and the Jupiter (FL) Hammerheads of the minor leagues. By 2013, he was already not just in the Major Leagues but a member of the All-Star team and the National League’s Rookie of the Year.
He put on a show wherever he’d go: 13 strikeouts against the Pittsburgh Pirates,14 against the Cleveland Indians, mowing them down. Fernandez was a mere 21 years old at that point, yet already phrases like “future Hall of Famer” were being tossed around by people who had seen quite a few pitchers in their day. Veterans marveled at his poise. Broadcasters sang his praises.
“Watching him, he played with an unbridled joy,” another of the Dodgers’ longtime voices, Charley Steiner, recalled Sunday morning for CNN after hearing the news. “He exuded a confidence that bordered on cocky, but that is what set him apart. His career path seemed infinite.”
The bodies of Fernandez and two other men were discovered by the Coast Guard at approximately 3 a.m. off the shore of Miami Beach, where their 32-foot vessel had capsized. Two of the victims were found beneath the boat, the third in the water nearby.
Fernandez was scheduled to make his next start Monday for the Marlins, who trail in the National League’s wild-card race but still had a mathematical possibility of making it to the October playoffs. He was having yet another outstanding season with a record of 16-8. Whenever anyone made a list of baseball’s most skilled young stars, Fernandez’s name always came up.
To have him struck down in his prime — no, ahead of his prime — is a loss like few in baseball have experienced. Some of the Los Angeles Angels had this same sick feeling in the pits of their stomachs on April 9, 2009, when their young teammate Nick Adenhart, another pitcher of endless promise, was killed in a California car crash. The sudden death of Fernandez caused a similar jolt.
“Absolutely devastated,” tweeted the Angels’ star outfielder Mike Trout after hearing the news from Miami.
Marlin team officials and players gathered together to speak of their loss, bringing one of Fernandez’s jerseys with them to a press conference. Sunday’s scheduled game against the Atlanta Braves was called off. Teammates must press on in the days ahead, but no sleeve patch with a fallen comrade’s initials or uniform number can sufficiently fill the void.
“I don’t know how you ever get over it,” New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
The Marlins had been a franchise known to deal away many of its top players in years past, sometimes to save money, sometimes simply on a team executive’s whim. That’s why other teams came calling before MLB’s trade deadline this summer — Jose Fernandez was a guy everybody else wanted on their side, rather than someone throwing fiery fastballs past their own batters.
This time, however, the Marlins turned away all potential suitors, all kinds of offers, thanks but no thanks. They had every intention of hanging onto this player for as long as they could, because this was one of those once-in-a-lifetime prospects you didn’t part with, no matter what.
Rob Manfred, baseball’s commissioner, called Fernandez “one of our game’s great young stars.”
The hard truth: He will get no older, leaving us to forever wonder how much greater he was going to be.
Editor’s note: Mike Downey is a former Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune columnist and a frequent contributor to CNN. The views expressed in this commentary are his.