Video: @MLB on YouTube
It was early September, 2013, at Wrigley Field. I was walking from the visitors dugout through the narrow tunnel that led to the cramped visitors clubhouse in the venerable old park.
Walking just in front of me was a 20-year-old rookie right-hander for the Marlins who hailed from Cuba. To that point, he had made 26 career starts in the Majors, already electrifying us with his velocity and charisma. Little did we know how little time he had remaining, and how little time we would have to watch him flourish.
Another reporter tried to say something to him in Spanish. And the eventual National League Rookie of the Year responded with his trademark smile, correcting the broken Spanish in a gregarious and gentle manner.
So I asked Jose Fernandez from just behind him, only half-jokingly, if he’d teach me Spanish. And contrary to the swagger he would so often display on the mound in his sheer passion for baseball, he flashed the smile again and humbly said: “Nah, man,” bouncing up the staircase to the clubhouse.
There’s something different about losing someone when that person goes young. All losses are tragic, and depending on the proximity of your relationship to the deceased, the intensity of the pain is diverse. But with certain people, the intensity level of that feeling can be disproportionately high compared to our actual proximity to them — leaders, entertainers … athletes.
We watched Fernandez every fifth day, Marlins fans or not. We saw just how special a talent he was, knowing that he could wind up one of the all-time greats. He was utterly overpowering while pitching at home, perhaps a statistical manifestation of his love for Miami. We didn’t know him, but it felt like we knew him. Just as it does with so many of the individuals we watch in the realm of sports.
Baseball provides, in many situations, a metaphor for life. There’s sacrifice. There’s the perfectly-struck ball that ends up in a glove for an out, followed by a dribbler that goes for a hit — a line drive for all we know from the box score the next day.
But in the death of a baseball player in his prime — or maybe even not having entered that prime yet, he was so young — we feel our breath snatched away. There are a myriad reasons we watch this great game. One of them is surely to feel something we can’t otherwise experience, because we’re not standing on the field and living out a dream.
So it stuns us when the young, seemingly invincible men and women of sport — whom we admire and marvel at because of their physical and mental acumen — cease to live among us.
And it should humble us.
If Jose Fernandez can be gone this morning, so can we. Today we may choose to remember that we can live and love in big ways in whatever we do.
Fernandez didn’t teach me the phrase, but in some ways, he actually did.
“Vive y ama.”