We love athletes who love their craft. We want them to feel what we all imagine: the elation of being adored by millions, while playing kid games. It's why we fall for, say, a Usain Bolt, who smiles and dances before races, then preens after finishing first. Or a Stephen Curry, who shimmies around while making those impossible shots. We want to witness joy.
Jose Fernandez, the Miami Marlins ace pitcher who died in a boating accident early Sunday, had that sense of wonder, making his loss all the more crushing. You saw it when Fernandez, who was just 24, pumped both of fists after strikeouts. When he riled up himself, and the crowd, by shouting after finishing a big inning, after tossing 98 m.p.h. heat. You clearly saw it after after he hit his first major league home run, back in 2013, when he stood at the plate to admire his unlikely shot. Some of the Atlanta Braves players took exception, as if Fernandez was showing the Braves up. But what kid, after hitting a big league blast, wouldn't just stare? Fernandez smiled through the whole ruckus.
"I see such a little boy," said manager Don Mattingly, shaken and tearful, in a Sunday press conference no big league manager should have to give, and can never prepare for. "The way he played, there was just joy." Wrote Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer on Twitter: "His passion and charisma for this game was [one] of a kind."
"In the time I covered baseball," said veteran reporter Buster Olney on ESPN, "I've never met anyone who extracted more joy, more passion out of what he did than Jose Fernandez."
Fernandez never should have made it to the majors, lest win the 2013 National League rookie of the year award—he was the first Cuban-born player to do so in the National League—and make two All-Star teams. So he never lost that wonder at all he was accomplishing. He defected from Cuba to America, by way of Mexico, in 2008, when he was 15. He had previously tried to defect on three prior occasions, and thrown in jail as a 14-year-old. He feared for his life.
On the treacherous boat ride that ultimately landed him in Florida, Fernandez' mother was thrown overboard. As writer Joran Ritter Conn, of Grantland, recounted in 2013:
And then he remembers the splash. He heard it one night while he was making small talk with the captain. After the splash, he heard the screams. A wave had crashed over the boat’s deck and swept Fernandez’s mother out to sea. He saw her body and before he had time to think, he jumped in. A spotlight shone on the water, and Fernandez could make out his mother thrashing in the waves about 60 feet from the boat. She could swim, but just barely, and as Fernandez pushed his way toward her, he spat out salty water with almost every stroke. Waves — “stupid big,” he says — lifted him to the sky, then dropped him back down. When he reached his mother he told her, “Grab my back, but don’t push me down. Let’s go slow, and we’ll make it.” She held his left shoulder. With his right arm — his pitching arm — he paddled. Fifteen minutes later, they reached the boat. A rope dropped, and they climbed aboard. For now, at least, they were going to be OK.
Fernandez reunited with his beloved grandmother, who stayed behind in Cuba during her family's defection, after the 2013 season. The cameras captured their emotional first moments together. In April of 2015, Fernandez became a U.S. citizen. In an Instgram post, just five days go, he shared a picture of his pregnant girlfriend on a beach. "I'm so glad you came into my life," Fernandez wrote. "I'm ready for where this journey is gonna take us together."
Over four seasons, Fernandez compiled a 38-17 record, with a 2.58 earned run average. Tommy John surgery shortened his 2014 and 2015 seasons. But Fernandez was a Cy Young contender this year: his 16-8 record, and 2.87 ERA helped the Marlins remain in the playoff race for most of the season. His 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings was not only tops in the majors; it was the fifth-best mark for a starting pitcher in history. On TBS Sunday, Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez said Fernandez had "maybe one of the best arms that was ever going to play this game."
With his combination of on-field talent and off-field charm, Fernandez made an ideal ambassador for any sport. But he was especially crucial for baseball, a game that's had a tough time connecting with younger audiences. Fernandez was young, fun, and had the potential to win the game more fans from America's growing Hispanic base. He appealed to legions of admirers throughout Latin America. His passing unbearably heart-wrenching, for so many reasons. Baseball has suffered one of its darkest days.