On the two-year anniversary of the incomparable pitcher’s death, emotions from the day still ring true.
Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on Outside Pitch MLB on September 25, 2016, and is republished with minor edits by the author.
There is a fallacy of longevity in sports. No matter how much proof we get of all great things ending, no matter how completely time wins and aging keeps its perfect record, in the rise and apex of an athlete’s career, the end is unimaginable. Unimaginable seems incapable of describing what it truly feels like to witness the end. The concept is mostly non-existent. And then, seemingly overnight, it is.
When longevity gets derailed, it usually happens over the length of the track. A couple miles per hour dips from the fastball. Contact rates lower, averages drop. When the cleats are finally put away, in retrospect, the decline only feels overnight because the watcher hadn’t been paying close enough attention. That’s all well and good and easily understood after 15 years and plenty of accomplishments to spend your reverie on. Moreover, as one’s own perspective expands beyond 27 outs, retirement isn’t so sad. The greener pastures of coaching or television lie ahead, and the word “retirement” warps the perspective of age; our old heroes are only in their late 30s, and our known heroes in that age range are decidedly not old.
So what’s to be made of the blunt force lesson of the fallacy of longevity when it happens overnight? When it’s applied to a proven stud who just tossed eight shutout, 12-strikeout innings a work-week ago against the National League East Champions? What do you make of the end of a playing career and a life in one fell swoop? The fallacy isn’t the law here. It feels like something more criminal.
Jose Fernandez passed away on September 25, 2016, a tragic and unexpected conclusion to a phenomenal life. That he was 24 adds another layer of horror to an already heartbreaking story. It doesn’t take qualifiers beyond “he was a human being” to mourn an abbreviated life, but in the realm of baseball, where Fernández’s public persona and superlatives are rooted, the news of his death is less shaking and more shattering.
At the risk of bracketing something as universally catastrophic as death, a large part of what makes this news so unbearable is the bona fide star it refers to. A flame-throwing righty for the Miami Marlins, Fernández’s bright life finds its first spark before he ever graced the mound in South Florida. At a young age, barely a teenager, he defected from his native Cuba with his family to the United States. The story of him jumping into the dangerous waters between destinations to rescue his overboard mother is so fantastic that the truth is almost apocryphal. It’s wretched to think his career—the part completed and the part canceled—may be viewed the same.
On the field, Fernández defied the upper limits of talent. He made his Major League debut in 2013, at an age when most of us are deciding which dreams to give up for our vocational definition. He turned in a 12 win season with a 2.19 ERA and took home the National League Rookie of the Year award on the back of 187 strikeouts and a .979 WHIP.
He faced some setbacks in the following years, dealing with a lengthy recovery process from Tommy John surgery that limited him to just 19 starts over the next two seasons. At the time, it was just a blip: Tommy John was about as typical to a pitcher’s career as warm-ups and rest days. As he bulldozed through batters with his 95 miles per hour fastball this season, collecting 16 wins and posting a staggering 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings, his two lost seasons to surgery and rehab were just simple glitches, minor detours on a long, legendary career ahead. But how quickly perspective changes on lost time is as traumatic as it is true. His 16 wins weren’t meant to be nearly half of his career total. His 29 starts weren’t supposed to be just over a third of all his appearances.
Just as important, Fernández embodied his home community in a way rarely seen in American professional sports. Through draft and free agency, the players in a particular city aren’t guaranteed to be reflections of their surroundings. Miami, though, a vibrant town with a massive Cuban population that radiates jubilation recognized from coast to coast, couldn’t have been better epitomized by anyone else. He smiled as the city shines. He pitched like the city lives.
Fernández’s death fits into a macabre Venn diagram whose crossover is rarely seen. In the history of baseball, unexpected death is as well-known as retirement; longevity isn’t only opposed by the natural regression an aging athlete faces. Longevity has to bow to the same parameters the rest of us do. What makes Fernández’s end limitlessly wrenching is that it falls between two camps of tragedy, finding its unwelcomed place in both.
Thurmon Munson was in the 11th season of a Hall of Fame career when a plane crash took his life. Roberto Clemente was an 18-year superstar with 12 all-star appearances and 3000 hits to his ledger. Darryl Kile had completed 330 starts and logged 133 wins. And on the short side of the heinous stick, Nick Adenhart made all of one start when a drunk driver took his life. Óscar Tavares’s career was only 80 games old.
Fernández was both a star with the numbers to back up his lofty reputation and a prospect with exponential potential that he somehow made achievable. His magnitude wasn’t mythical; his gifts weren’t hypothetical. He was great in a measurable way and faced further greatness in the intangible, proposed fever dreams of the game’s fans. Some deaths are accepted because they follow a life entirely lived, and others are assuaged by canonizing potential that may or may not have been ahead. Rarely are both appropriate at the same inappropriate time.
How are you supposed to cope with the fallacy of longevity? Should you adopt proper perspective and instantly understand that your grief pales in comparison to that felt of the victim’s family, friends, and loved ones? Should the fans immediately ignore their pain at the news knowing the man whose end inspires their hurt went through something much worse? Maybe the expectation is to honor the life as if the end of it is just a footnote shoe-horned into the tale because all great stories need endings: it isn’t wholly irrelevant, but it’s not relevant right now.
Thinking on the concept of a José Fernández-less future, it’s almost shameful, but perhaps understandable, to come away with a deep sadness that drops you and the pit of your stomach clear to the other side of this world. It’s incomprehensible that, overnight, Fernández was excised from a future where our children, the kids that are merely incorporeal thoughts today, could go to the park on gameday and see a wily veteran paint the corners to add the capstone to a Hall of Fame career. It’s horrendously gut-twisting to think the legend of José Fernández has become just that: a legend. It’s maddeningly sad to think future generations might be skeptical when you describe the whip of his arm and the dominance of his fastball. They’ll curl their noses and furl their brows when you try to emulate his smile. They won’t believe you when he appears on your top-10 lists. They’ll need proof of something that was true in your time.
José Fernández is cherished, should be prized and his memory must be permanent. The maintenance of the phenomena is a responsibility now. It should have been his task alone, for him to prove every fifth day. This, perhaps, is the only way to combat the fallacy: make it outlive us all.
For such a galactic talent gone from this life way too soon, it’s a cause we should all feel honored championing.
Khurram Kalim is a senior writer for Bronx to Bushville.