Why the loss of Jose Fernandez makes us cry out of sadness and happiness
The loss of Fernandez strikes a very common chord among all of us
Why do we cry when people we barely know, die?
I met Jose Fernandez only twice during his incredible, but all too brief major league career. Only interviewed him at any length once. It was spring training 2014, right after he had plowed through the league to win NL Rookie of the Year honors. We talked mostly about pitch grips.
How did he throw that blinding fastball, the one that averaged 96-97 mph and often popped at 99? How did he manipulate his fingers when he sprinkled in his darting changeup? Finally, how did he grip his hellacious curveball, the heartbreaker of a pitch that had wrestled opponents into submission -- a .117 batting average against it during that stellar rookie campaign, .115 the following year?
Fernandez answered cordially, posed his right hand for a few iPhone snaps, and that was it. Thank you for your time, good luck this season.
So why did a wave of painful sadness wash over all of us Sunday, when news of Fernandez's fatal boat accident went wide? Why did I, a grown adult with no personal relationship with Fernandez beyond a transactional interview two and a half years ago, walk around all day feeling unimaginably sad, like I'd lost someone I'd known my whole life?
It starts with his pitching. Topping Yasiel Puig for Rookie of the Year honors was an incredible feat, given how electrifying the man Vin Scully dubbed The Wild Horse was that season. But Fernandez earned his hardware. He slugged .340 that year as a hitter...opponents slugged just .265 against him. He flashed a 1.19 ERA at home, the sixth-lowest mark for any starting pitcher since World War II. He was a damn force of nature.
We were all bummed out when Fernandez went under the knife for Tommy John surgery in 2014, lamenting another setback for another young superstar who lit up radar guns. But nothing was going to keep him down for long. The 2016 campaign marked his first full season back from surgery. He responded by posting the fifth-highest strikeout rate for any starting pitcher in baseball history. The only two starters to whiff batters more prolifically? Hall of Famers Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson.
If you were an opposing batter, this is the humiliation...
...you could expect to experience...
...whenever you stepped to the plate to face him.
Then there's the story. Thirteen times, a young Fernandez and his family tried to flee the oppressive Cuban regime for the promise of freedom in America. Each of those 13 tries failed. At age 14, the government threw him in prison, a child thrown in with murderers and rapists, for no crime other than seeking a better life for himself and his family.
On the 14th try, at age 15, Fernandez made it onto a boat. It was headed to Mexico in the dead of night, via one of the most treacherous stretches of water anywhere. In mid-journey, he saw someone fall overboard. He jumped into the pitch-black ocean, waves crashing on him. Swam over, and pulled a woman to safety. It was his mother. Many say he didn't know who the woman pitched overboard was until he got there. Either way, it was an unbelievable act of heroism, one made more unbelievable by Fernandez's youth.
Read Jordan Conn's account of that rescue, and the rest of Fernandez's journey from hardship in Cuba to baseball glory in America, and you're inspired to let the tears flow...even if Fernandez eventually grew tired of talking about his own myth.
Still, the rest of us couldn't help but feel overwhelmed with emotion whenever we read about it or saw images of it. Watch this video of Fernandez's final pitch in the big leagues, with his mother and abuela in attendance, and try not to feel some dust in the room you're in.
Better yet, watch this video of Fernandez reuniting with his abuela for the first time since leaving Cuba when he was 15. It was difficult to not feel affected when that clip first came out. It's impossible now.
Finally, there's the joy.
That's been the word on everyone's mind since we learned of Fernandez's passing. He pitched with joy. He reacted to teammates' success with joy. He GIF-bombed sideline reporter interviews with joy. That joy became infectious, spreading to fans, broadcasters, everyone.
Check out this photo by ESPN reporter Allison Williams. Fernandez had just beaten the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. It was fireworks night. So, rather than retreating to the clubhouse and disappearing into the L.A. night, he pulled up a chair and watched. This is what it looks like to wake up every day and get to do something you truly love.
This is my favorite photo. I took it after he got a W vs Dodgers. He grabbed chair, watched fireworks. A big leaguer but always kid at heart pic.twitter.com/QwDzQ1sKCx— Allison Williams (@AllisonW_Sports) September 25, 2016
The pitching, the story, the joy...it was all of that. Fernandez taught us about the value of chasing our dreams. He showed us what optimism can look like, at a time when negativity and pessimism can consume our lives. He made an indelible impact on everyone around him. And yes, he had the same effect on those of us who barely knew him, or didn't know him at all.
So we cry. We cry out of sadness, because the baseball world lost an incredible pitcher and courageous person who offered hope for a better tomorrow. But more than that, we cry out of happiness, because of the smiles he so often gave us, even when we watched from thousands of miles away.
Rest in power, Jose Fernandez. We will never forget you.
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