2016-09-27 01:03:06
On Baseball: Loss of Jose Fernandez Shakes a Team, a Sport and a People

01:03, September 27 324 0

MIAMI — The special black game jerseys, all with Jose Fernandez’s No. 16, were rushed by air to this grieving city. The Miami Marlins and the Mets had a game to play, but Fernandez would not be pitching. He will never pitch again, and after Monday, no Marlin will ever wear his number again, either.

It has been like this before, a sudden death piercing the baseball season and ripping the guts from a team. Don Mattingly, the Marlins’ manager, joined the Yankees a few years after Thurman Munson died in a plane crash in 1979. The Yankees never let another player use Munson’s locker in their clubhouse. Veterans passed down the stories.

“Just the way they talked about Thurman,” Mattingly said on the bench during batting practice Monday. “These guys, the way they talk about Jose and his personality — you’re not going to forget that. I do think Jose will have a presence in this organization, ongoing.”

Fernandez was supposed to pitch on Sunday, but the Marlins pushed his start back a day, to Monday against the Mets. Early Sunday, Fernandez and two friends were found dead after a boating accident on a jagged jetty off Miami Beach.

That day’s game was canceled, and after an emotional news conference, Mattingly took the team to see Fernandez’s mother and grandmother. The wrenching scene tapped a deep emotional well for Mattingly.

In 1969, Mattingly’s oldest brother, Jerry, was killed at 23 in a construction accident. Mattingly was 8, and when a man from the construction company came to the house with the news, his parents sent him outside to play, to shield him, briefly, from the horror. As the team tried to comfort Fernandez’s family, Mattingly’s personal anguish flooded back.

“I was not really a part of all that, what was going on, but now I know what was going on,” Mattingly said. “I knew the pain. I could see my Mom and my sister-in-law, what they were going through. It was awful.”

Marlins reliever A. J. Ramos said he was glad, at least, to have told Fernandez he loved him. Fernandez was open like that, Ramos said, always telling teammates how he felt. But Sunday’s visit hit him hard.

“That was easily one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Ramos said. “I think when you see a mother lose a child, let alone someone like Jose, all they’ve been through, the struggle they had to get here, and when they get here, they were pretty much set. And then this happens. I wish I could say some words to her just to make her feel a little bit better.

“I’m glad we went as a team. I think it showed how much he meant to us.”

Fernandez was jailed as a teenager for trying to defect from Cuba. He made it on his fourth attempt, in 2008, and saved his mother from drowning in choppy waters along the way. Her grief, said the owner Jeffrey Loria, who flew in from New York and visited after the team on Sunday night, was profound.

“People were sort of drained from the day, the players had been out there, friends and family,” Loria said. “And I walked in and she jumped up from the couch and came flying into my arms. I just held her. That’s all we could do.”

Loria said definitively that “nobody will wear that number again,” referring to Fernandez’s No. 16. He had a special bond with Fernandez, insisting that the Marlins put him on their opening day roster in 2013, even though Fernandez was 20 years old and had never pitched above Class A.

Loria remembered a shopping spree Fernandez made on his first road trip, how ungainly he looked hauling bags of electronics and video games around with him. Loria took Fernandez out to buy luggage, and he recalled some of their playful conversations.

“There was always back-and-forth banter like that,” Loria said from the front row of his ballpark before the game. Then he paused. “Oh, I just can’t believe this happened,” he added.

Scott Boras, Fernandez’s agent, stood nearby. Agents are not allowed on the field, but this was an extraordinary circumstance, and Boras struggled for words. He had flown in from California and spent the day with Fernandez’s mother. Her son was 29-2 in his career at Marlins Park.

“He pitched for her,” Boras said. “I used to tease him: ‘Take your mother on the road, because your E.R.A. is a run and a half lower when she’s in the stadium.’ I’d go, ‘Just tell me what advice she’s giving you,’ and he’d laugh. He was very focused when she was here.”

What made Fernandez so special, Boras said, was the way he embraced everyone in uniform, not just with the Marlins. He was eager to share the game with anyone, and his story resonated deeply among Cuban-Americans in Miami.

On Monday afternoon at a park on Calle Ocho, in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana, Fernandez was on the minds of the many Cubans playing their country’s popular game of dominoes.

“For me, it’s a lot of pride that he’s from my country — in this city and for the entire country,” said Bruno Guerrera, 78, who left Cuba for a visit to the United States 13 years ago and never returned.

In between games of dominoes, Guerrera, who grew up in Havana, sat at a table covered with a map of Cuba and told stories of his country’s baseball history. He was eating lunch on Sunday when a friend called to tell him the news about Fernandez.

Guerrera said that he was so upset, he had to stop and take medicine for his blood pressure. He watched the Cuban stars Camilo Pascual, Luis Tiant, Orlando Pena and others, and said Fernandez was headed down that path.

“I saw this kid,” Guerrera said. “If he didn’t hurt his arm, he was going to be the best Cuban pitcher of all time.”

Mike Mussina, the former ace of the Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles, used to say that an elite starting pitcher, over time, should win half his starts. Fernandez’s career statistics are frozen at that benchmark: 38 victories in 76 starts, with a 2.58 earned run average and endless potential for more.

Here, though, his legacy will always be bigger than that. David Samson, the team president, said Fernandez represented possibility, the fulfillment of the Cuban dream of freedom.

“There’s been a lot of talking and a lot of crying and a lot of praying, and trying to make sense of something that we can’t make sense of,” Samson said. “There’s no sense to a life ending like that, in a way that is so meaningless. So it’s our job to make his life matter, and we’re going to do it forever.”