When an actor dies young, we might think of moments, scenes, pictures, of Marilyn Monroe’s dress rising up as she stands over a grate, or Heath Ledger in grisly makeup embodying pure evil or Philip Seymour Hoffman telling the kid not to worry about being unpopular because he will meet his classmates again on the long journey to the middle.
When a singer dies young, we might think of the music, of Janis Joplin’s wail, of Kurt Cobain’s raspy growl, of Whitney Houston’s soaring national anthem that skyrocketed over the Super Bowl.
But when an athlete dies young, we think of a future that should have been.
Jose Fernandez was one of the best young pitchers in baseball history. We don’t want to get bogged down with statistics, not in the tear-choked aftermath of this tragedy, but there is a statistic called Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). It attempts to break apart the things a pitcher firmly controls (strikeouts, walks, home runs allowed) from things that are at least somewhat beyond his command (hits allowed).
All but one of the top 30 starting pitchers in FIP are from the dead-ball era, when spitballs were legal, when soiled and scuffed baseballs were put back in play, when home runs were freak events. There is only one exception among the 30: Jose Fernandez. His FIP of 2.43 is so absurdly good, so much better than any of the great pitchers of the last 100 years, that it leaves you wondering if he was simply playing a different game than everyone else.
He was born in Cuba and almost from the time he was old enough to dream, he dreamt of defecting to America. His stepfather, Ramon, made it out in 2005, when Jose was 12. He and his mother, Maritza, would try again and again for the next three years to join him. They were caught and stopped three times. After one of the failed escapes — when his boat was boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard with the lights of Miami flickering just off in the distance — Jose was returned to Cuba and spent three months in prison. He was expelled from school. He was threatened repeatedly. But the American dream would not die.
The fourth time Maritza and Jose tried to defect, they made it into the boat. For three days, they tossed and turned in the waves. At one point, the story goes, Maritza fell into the Gulf of Mexico and Jose dove into the water and brought her back. He was 15 years old.
He was not a baseball phenom, not yet. When Orlando Chinea, a former Cuban pitching coach and guru, first saw Fernandez pitch, he saw a young man with a fastball that topped out in the low 80s and a curveball that barely curved. Neither of these things promised future stardom. But Chinea saw something. They began working together, but not with a baseball. Fernandez chopped wood. He flipped tires. He swam, and he stretched, and he ran up hills, and he pushed cars. Chinea’s imagination for drills — he once had Fernandez run around with a snorkel mask to give him better lung capacity — was endless. So was Fernandez’s work ethic. He would tell himself, again and again, that America was a big country and that the only way he would ever succeed in such a big country was to work harder than anyone else.
How quickly did Jose Fernandez emerge on the scene? In 2012, when he was 19, Baseball America — the bible of baseball scouting — wrote that he “profiles as a No. 2 starter, though he’ll need time to develop.” One year later, when he was 20, they wrote, “He could reach MIami by mid-season and has the stuff and mindset to become a true No. 1 starter.”
As it turned out, Fernandez moved even faster than that. He made the Marlins out of spring training in 2013 and gave up one run total in his first two starts. The Marlins were careful with him, never letting him pitch a complete game, always watching his pitch count closely. He still won Rookie of the Year. By traditional statistics, he went 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA — spectacular enough. But by various advanced metrics, Fernandez’s season was the best in almost 40 years dating back to a pitcher named Mark Fidrych.
Crash Davis, in the classic movie “Bull Durham,” said that the secret to baseball is playing with fear and arrogance. That was Jose Fernandez. He astonished coaches and teammates with both his drive and his cockiness. Troy Tulowitzki told a wonderful story to Sports Illustrated about a time when he hit a line drive right back at the mound, and Fernandez somehow snagged it.
“You caught that?” Tulowitzki shouted.
“Yeah,” Fernandez said. “Abracadabra.”
Well, he was magical. He talked trash, he stomped, he pumped his fist, he left no doubts about his self-belief. But he was also a force of nature who never stopped working harder than anyone else, who repeatedly came back from the abyss. At 21 years old, he became the youngest Opening Day starter since Dwight Gooden. A month later, he tore his ulnar collateral ligament and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. A year later, he came back and, pitching through pain, picked right up as one of the best pitchers in baseball. Through it all, he won 17 consecutive home games, a record.
Then came this year, and words cannot begin to capture how much fun it was to watch Jose Fernandez pitch. He decided to cut back on his miraculous two-seam fastball — a pitch that would sometimes seem to explode in mid-air it moved so much — because he thought it was too hard on his arm. Instead, he mixed in a few more curves and sliders and changeups. He would throw a high-90s fastball and follow it up with a curveball that moved like a slider (or a slider that moved like a curve) and then a change-up would bedazzle the hitter — it was symphonic.
To quote one more movie, there’s the scene in “A River Runs Through It” where the narrator returns home after years away and goes fly fishing with his brother. He watches his brother’s remarkable form in the water.
“And I realized that in the time I was away,” he said, “my brother had become an artist.”
Jose Fernandez became an artist in 2016. He struck out an absurd 12.5 batters per nine innings, the highest rate since Randy Johnson some 15 years ago. He gave up one or fewer runs in half his starts. He made hitters look silly. And it was joyous.
What is it about great athletes that connect so powerfully with us, that makes us feel like we know them? It’s a hard thing to explain, but I suppose it has something to do with the energy and force that radiates from them when they’re playing. Jose Fernandez was a big man, but there was a lightness about the way he moved. He had a face that changed dramatically with expression, so that he glowed when he smiled and he darkened when intense. He threw pitches that boggled the imagination. We did not have to know him to know him.
This is how it is with athletes. Jose Fernandez was a man first, of course, a young man who by all accounts was coming into his own, figuring out his place in the world. But he was also a brilliant athlete, and in the minutes after hearing about his shocking boating accident, we ponder the loss of a 24-year-old pitching genius. The most powerful images are not of the past but of a missing future, of brilliant strikeouts that will not be, of those blaring cheers that will instead be silence, of a Hall of Fame ceremony for a kid who escaped Cuba and became a star that would have melted our hearts.