Jose Fernandez: A Sad Epilogue to a Tragic Tale

It didn’t have to end like this.

That’s all I could think on that Sunday September morning when I woke up to the news that Miami Marlins ace pitcher Jose Fernandez had died in a boating accident off the Florida coast. His vibrant life, a real against-the-odds story, cut short at 23.

That’s how I felt again this morning when I read the news that Fernandez was responsible for the crash that took his life and the lives of his friends Eduardo Rivero and Emilio Macias. Fernandez was driving the vessel with a .147 blood alcohol content and a “noted presence of cocaine” in his system. (A PDF of the full report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission can be accessed here, provided by ESPN.)

It didn’t have to end like this.

But sadly, this isn’t the end of the incident. The families of Rivero and Macias filed a wrongful death suit against the Fernandez estate in February. Control of the late pitcher’s estate was granted to Fernandez’s mother and girlfriend, but it seems likely that the sole beneficiary will be Fernandez’s daughter Penelope, born last month.

The Fernandez story will continue to be in the news. Lawyers and attorneys will keep jockeying for position, debating Fernandez’s character and his actions on that fateful night. But amidst the tragedy of his death, don’t forget the light that was Fernandez’s life.

Remember Jose the ball player. He rose through the Marlins organization in no time, quickly taking over the top spot in the rotation. His fastball topped out at 97, but his location made it a weapon. It was also a great set-up for his put-away pitch, a curveball that dropped out of the zone like a lead balloon. In 4 seasons (2 shortened by Tommy John), he never posted an ERA higher than 2.92, and posted a K/9 above 10 almost every season. He had some pretty good defensive moves too:

Remember Jose the family man. On his fourth attempt to escape Cuba, Jose heard a splash as someone fell overboard. He jumped in to save whoever it was; when he got to her, he discovered it was his mother. By all accounts he was devoted to his girlfriend Maria Arias; we can only imagine the devotion he would have shown his daughter. One of the most touching moments I’ve ever witnessed in baseball was Fernandez’s reunion with his grandmother, whom he hadn’t seen since he defected.

Remember Jose the icon. Miami seemed to stop when Jose was on the mound. It was “Jose Day,” a chance to watch their hero win one for their hometown team. For a town with a distinct Cuban flavor, Jose was the icon they needed, and the outpouring of emotion after his death was heartfelt. Just go re-watch the way the Marlins honored his life in their first game after the accident–but bring the tissues.

MLB: New York Mets at Miami Marlins
Sep 26, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; A memorial of signed shirts and hats are placed outside a gate at Marlins Park in honor of Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jose Fernandez who was killed in a boating accident. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

But most of all, remember Jose’s heart. Remember the way he wore his heart on his sleeve every time he went on the field. How he would celebrate after striking out the side, flashing that trademark smile. “That smile I’m not going to see anymore,” said Freddie Freeman, “that personality and that love of the game, the love of everything, really.”

He was a kid playing a game that he loved. He played baseball the way it was meant to be played, and reminded everyone who was watching how much fun this game can be.

Remember that Jose, the brightness and vibrancy he exuded in his every move. Don’t remember him for the way it all ended.

Jose Fernandez made a terrible decision, one that cost him and two other young men their lives. He cannot be absolved of that. But to see him only in the light of one tragic mistake is to throw away the life he lived.

After the FWC released their findings Thursday, Marlins President David Sampson spoke on Fernandez’s legacy.

“No matter what the report has concluded, nothing will ever diminish Jose’s everlasting positive connection with Miami and the Miami Marlins. Nor can it lessen the love and passion he felt for his family, friends, teammates and all his fans in South Florida and around the world.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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