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On the Tragic Loss of José Fernández

On Sunday, baseball woke a much darker place. José Fernández, ace pitcher of the Miami Marlins, was killed along with two others in a boating accident off the city’s famous beach. Barely 24-years old, Fernández was one of the most talented players of a new generation, and he played with a joyful passion that promised to revolutionise the game. Tragically, Fernández will now never reach his boundless potential on or off the field, for both his career and life have been upended in the worst way imaginable.

It was impossible to watch José Fernández pitch without feeling genuine excitement for the future of baseball, a sport often derided for its traditionalist nature. Fernández, like many of his contemporaries, brought a different approach to the game. There was fire in his belly and sparkle in his eye. There was energy in his being and hope in his determination. He wasn’t afraid to celebrate big strikeouts with boisterous celebrations or display natural emotion when his team won. José Fernández was a superstar fit for the twenty-first century. That he was taken so young is still hard to comprehend.

There was extraordinary talent in his right arm, which promised to earn him one of the most lucrative contracts in baseball history. In parts of four Major League seasons, Fernández pitched to a 2.58 ERA. For every nine innings pitched, he averaged 11.2 strikeouts, a number that puts him alongside the all-time greats. This season, he led baseball in FIP and pitcher WAR. A first Cy Young Award may have been forthcoming, just two years after he underwent Tommy John surgery.

Fernández was National League Rookie of the Year in 2013. He was an All-Star twice. He was, along with Giancarlo Stanton, the face of a Marlins franchise desperately in need of heroes. Quite simply, José was on track for a career to rival any ancient legend. Now such dreams will never materialise.

That realisation is a heavy blow for baseball; one unlike any I can remember. This tragic loss transcends any one team. It’s a loss for the entire baseball family, regardless of team colours or emblems. Deep down, everybody associated with the sport is a fan. We all fell in love with this great game in similar ways, and we all enjoy the extremes of skill it displays each day. José Fernández thrilled us like few others, and I still find it stunning that we’ll never have the privilege of watching him work again. If baseball is in your blood, as it is mine, this hurts immeasurably.

We’ll miss the soul, the skill and the smile of José Fernández, but that’s nothing compared to what he will miss, and also what his family will miss. Think of his girlfriend, for instance, who is currently pregnant with their first child. Think of his mother, who Fernández saved from drowning as they defected from Cuba in a speedboat. Think of everyone who knew the man, not just the ballplayer, and try to rationalise how they’ll cope with this tragedy.

On Monday night, the Marlins played their first game since the dreadful news broke. All players wore Fernández’s name and number 16 on their jerseys, in a show of incredible solidarity. Soon, that number will be retired, never to be worn again by a Miami player. The Marlins won, 7-3, over the New York Mets, who graciously consoled their emotional opponents following a poignant pre-game ceremony. This is a family that just lost its shining light.

At times like this, baseball can seem pointless, futile, even silly. When contrasted with the wider importance of human life, it certainly is trivial. But baseball, like any sport, can also be a force for good in the world. It can help with the healing process by providing escapism and bringing people together. In its communal response to a grave loss, baseball has shown what unity, compassion and togetherness can achieve. At a time of such crude heartache caused by intolerance around the world, that’s a deeply refreshing sentiment.

José Fernández journeyed to America in search of a better life. With fortitude and talent, he achieved that, and seemed destined for so much more. When it was cruelly truncated, his career was still in its infancy. The next decade may have brought awards, championship parades and wealth beyond the dreams of a kid from Santa Clara. Instead, it’ll bring unspeakable pain for those who loved him, or loved watching him pitch.

José Fernández leaves an inspirational legacy, but moving on will be tough for this game he adored so much.

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