TORONTO – We played baseball in Rogers Centre and lots of other places around the major leagues Sunday because that’s what the game does. Year after year, in good times and bad times. Through tragedy, whether personal or national. Day after day.
It’s not often we have a day like Sunday, where one of the game’s best is struck down in his prime. Far too young. Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez was one of the new generation of stars the game was building around, a beacon for the Latino community who tried four times before he was able to escape from Cuba with his family in 2008.
He became “the heartbeat” of the Miami Marlins, as one team official told the Miami Herald on Sunday. Now, that heartbeat has been silenced. Fernandez was one of three people killed in a boating accident early in the morning off Miami Beach, his life and his career stats frozen forever at age 24.
The stunned Marlins canceled their game against the Atlanta Braves but will do their duty and return to the field Monday night. The Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees, meanwhile, were among those who forged on, and it wasn’t easy.
“We’re all saddened and in mourning. Our hearts go out to his family,” Jays designated hitter Jose Bautista said after Toronto rallied for two runs in the ninth to post a 4-3 victory. “It’s tough and unfortunate. At the end of the day, we’re professionals and we have to figure out a way to get it out of our mind for at least those four hours. But I can tell you that the only thing on TV all morning and the only thing guys were talking about in here today was the fact he passed away.”
Prior to the game, Yankees manager Joe Girardi stared vacantly in the dugout with eyes glistening as he talked about a player he said he didn’t even know.
“I think we’re all shocked. It’s sad, a very sad day,” Girardi said. “You think about all the people’s lives that this affects and how difficult it must be down there right now. I don’t know how you ever get over it.”
The Marlins’ news conference to talk about Fernandez was a surreal scene. Manager Don Mattingly was among those tearfully describing the life of his star pitcher. Girardi knows about this situation. He was in Chicago playing for the Cubs when Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile was found dead in his hotel room in 2002 of a heart defect. It was Girardi, a Cubs leader near the end of his career, who had to tell the Wrigley Field crowd the game was canceled.
“Being a leader in the clubhouse, Donnie’s got a lot of responsibility to these guys with what they’re going through,” Girardi said. “I can’t imagine what he’s going through. My heart goes out to him and everyone involved down there. It’s got to be really sad.”
Baseball probably hasn’t had such a loss since Yankees catcher Thurman Munson died in a plane crash in 1979. Fernandez was 16-8 this year, 38-17 for his career. He was a former first-round draft choice and rookie of the year. He had struck out 12.5 batters per nine innings this season, the most in the bigs since 2001, and his 258 Ks were second only to Max Scherzer. Just Tuesday night, he threw eight innings of three-hit shutout ball with 12 strikeouts in a 1-0 win over the NL East champion Nationals.
How unfair is it to think that was the last time we’d ever see him on the field?
There was already talk of where Fernandez’s big-money free agent contract would be in two years, whether he would stay in Miami or perhaps look to Los Angeles or New York. He was a star in Miami, where his starts were dubbed “Jose Day” as attendance spiked by nearly 30 percent and television ratings did likewise. It was a modern-day Fernando Valenzuela effect.
Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle, who spent time on the dais with Fernandez during a baseball awards dinner in New York in 2013, had some powerful words Sunday in PNC Park.
“Since then,” Hurdle said, “whenever we played them, he’d come up and put his arm around me like he’s an old soul. ‘Hey, Papi! How you doing, man?’ ... It’s so horribly sad on so many different levels that there’ll be no more of that, there’ll be no more of him, there’ll be no more of that emotion on the mound, that skill-set, that human being, that young man with such a gift, such a great smile.
“I’ve been trying to live that life for a while now. I wasn’t always in that place. It just makes all the more sense when things like this happen. Be where your feet are. Enjoy the moment. There’ll be a day when there won’t be another day.”
“This is not only one of the greatest pitchers in the modern game, but one of the finest young men you’d ever meet,” Mets manager Terry Collins added before his team’s game in Citi Field. The Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer was so moved by the loss of Fernandez that he requested all questions during Sunday’s pregame meeting with reporters stay on the topic of the Marlins’ pitcher out of respect for his memory.
Yankees third base coach Joe Espada was with the Marlins when Fernandez was a rookie and utility man Donovan Solano, who played three years in Miami, was held out of Sunday’s lineup by Girardi. In the end, Solano came on as a pinch-runner and scored in the top of the ninth to cap a two-run rally off Toronto closer Roberto Osuna that gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead. But the Blue Jays rallied for two of their own in the bottom of the inning, capped by Edwin Encarnacion’s RBI infield single.
“All the Latinos over there were very close,” Solano said. “I know his family, his mom, his grandma, his uncle. I’m so sad. I feel sorry for the family. I’m still in shock.”
Solano scoring the winning run on Sunday, of all days, would have been appropriate. It didn’t happen. The Yankees have lost four straight games, and snapped a 33-inning scoreless streak here Sunday. Their playoff hopes are kaput. But it was hard for them to feel that pain because they were feeling a different kind.
“They say they’re OK but you know they’re not,” Girardi said of Solano and Espada. “You just know. I didn’t know Jose and my heart’s heavy. I can’t imagine what they feel. It’s going to be difficult around baseball. Your thoughts are going to go back to Jose, to the Marlins and to the community. It’s difficult.”
Fernandez made his major-league debut against the Mets in 2013 and Collins named him to the All-Star Game in July. The Mets will be able to pay their respects to the Miami organization Monday night as they’ll be the opponent in what will certainly be an emotionally charged scene in Marlins Park.
“One of those games that I’m not sure we look forward to playing,” Collins said. “It’ll be hard for all of baseball. I certainly understand the Marlins’ situation tomorrow night. It’s going to be a tough night for everybody. But we’ll get through it, because we have to. As you know, everybody that’s ever played the game knows it has to go on.”