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Jose Fernandez: In Memoriam

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Remebering a pitcher who, more than any other I've watched, embodied what it meant to play baseball.

Marlins stadium today.
Marlins stadium today.
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

There are certain feelings you go through when you wake up to news like this.

Like what I assume so many people did, I woke up to a beautiful Sunday morning, took my phone from my nightstand, and opened the ESPN notification on my screen. I saw the news, read it, and in a state of shock--just going through the motions--I read the rest of my unrelated notifications, swearing as I did so, then closed my phone, stared at the ceiling, and swore again.

My next thought, selfishly, was "If this was Correa, I probably would not get out of bed today." And then I realized that, for the first time, a death had truly crushed me, that in a year in which we said goodbye to Prince and Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder and Elie Wiesel, David Bowie and Gordie Howe, and Alan Rickman and Harper Lee, I had finally understood what, over the years, has plagued so many people around me.

***

When my dad was in Little League, he wanted to be a catcher. Both he and his younger brother did, actually. His brother’s favorite player was Johnny Bench, one of the best catchers to ever play the game, one of the most respected Hall of Famers alive right now. My dad's favorite player isn't in the Hall of Fame, but that has nothing to do with the player, who was also one of the best catchers the sport has seen. Except he didn't play long enough to reach the Hall, because he didn't even play ten full seasons. My dad's favorite player was Thurman Munson.

In 1979, the Yankees, who had won the past two World Series, were having an off year. They were set to play a four-game series against the Baltimore Orioles, who were running away with the division. On August 2nd, Munson, who had purchased a plane so he could fly home on off-days, was practicing take-offs and landings with a friend and a flight instructor. He was in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, when he took off from the airport the city shared with Canton. Munson allowed the plane to dip too low on a landing, it clipped a tree, and the rest is history, Munson being the only casualty of the crash. The next day, the Yankees lined up at their infield positions, but left the catcher spot unfilled.

My dad was not the only Munson fan in Ridgewood, New Jersey. One of the most popular players on the Yankees--if not all of baseball--Munson was looked up to by so many kids at the day camp my father attended that they unofficially named their baseball field after Munson. Someone hung up his baseball card in the dugout. Eleven-year-olds shouldn't have to go through that kind of experience.

***

I have lived in St. Louis since 2008. Since then, several players have shined in the minors, but none more brightly than Oscar Taveras. Signed a couple weeks before I moved to the city, he was called "the lefty Vladimir Guerrero", or simply "El Fenómeno". The third-best prospect in all of baseball, he hit a home run in his second at-bat in his MLB debut. After the Cardinals lost to the Giants in the playoffs, he went home to the Dominican Republic, and right before Game 5 of the World Series, I was at the house of a friend and die-hard Cardinal fan when we both had the notification pop up on our phones.

You all remember what happened. Yordano Ventura wrote "RIP O.T. #18" on his hat, Carlos Martinez changed his number in honor of Taveras, and the Cardinals renovated a baseball field in Taveras’ hometown and dedicated it in his name. But nothing will match the raw emotion on my friend’s face at the time. This was a person who didn't show up to school for a few days after the Cardinals lost the Series in 2013. If I hadn't been there, he may well have broken down crying. As it was, he didn't speak for the first few seconds, before he finally said "This is so stupid. So stupid."

***

The first death in baseball that I heard about was Nick Adenhart, who was killed by a drunk driver. I don't recall if it was on the back of his baseball card, or if I recognized who he was because of his baseball card, but that sent shockwaves through me, even though the Angels meant even less to me than they do now, and I'd never really known death before. Maybe that's the reason I don't like drinking.

***

As I scrolled through Twitter, I couldn't help but notice not only the shock of Marlins fans and players but, truly, everyone within baseball. Fernandez was one of the best pitchers in baseball, twenty-four years old and on the top of his game. Was Kershaw better than him? Maybe, but was anyone else close to Fernandez? He wasn't beloved for just his talent--no, he was a fabulously entertaining personality, responsible for both the incredible Vine in which he somehow robbed Troy Tulowitzki of a hit and the tear-inducing video of him being reunited with his grandmother. It is not without reason that the articles popping up today, like Ben Lindbergh’s and Grant Brisbee's and Michael Baumann’s, are remembering what a joy it was to watch Fernandez, and how important he was to both baseball and America. He was MLB’s version of Allen Iverson, but happier.

I'm not sure why this article, which is remembering the most fun player the sport has had since Pedro Martinez, is so somber, choked with stories of other players, all of whom passed away under horrific circumstances, stolen away in the prime of their lives. Maybe it's related to that first thought I had: "If this was Correa…". Maybe it's because, whenever I mention Adenhart (to the one Angels fan I know, that is), his eyes get wistful. Maybe it's because, back in 2014, I was the only one in school who felt they hadn't been shot; it was awful, but it wasn't personal yet.

Or maybe it's because of the way my dad first looked at me when, at the age of six, I chose to play catcher in Little League. Maybe it's because I know that perhaps there's a little boy in Miami, or a little girl in Cuba, who will have that grin on their face when they first see their kid step onto the mound. Maybe I'm in pursuit of understanding an emotion I hope to never have to feel watching my future kids play baseball.

Or maybe it's because Oscar Francisco Taveras left behind Oscar Yadier Taveras, and José had just put a picture of his pregnant girlfriend on Instagram. And maybe it's because the Marlins canceled their game today, and Don Mattingly cried as he talked about Fernandez, and Carlos Martinez couldn't contain his sorrow at his best friend’s funeral. Because I don't know if Maria Arias (Fernandez’s girlfriend) will smile or cry when their child first picks up a baseball, and I don't know if Martinez will smile or cry when Taveras’s son picks up a bat.

Maybe it's because I'll remember Fernandez for his filthy pitches, and his electric personality, and the way he made the game fun, but that's just baseball. We all see what happens on the field, but we don't know what happens off it. Maybe I was trying to learn how to deal with it in the only way I could, but in doing so, remembered that I didn't really know him, and I could somehow make that qualifier, that "If this was Correa…". Because I spoke with people who only knew these players because they performed at a high level for their favorite team, and I couldn't speak to the friends and family of Munson, and Taveras, and Adenhart, and Fernandez. Because to them, these players were their best friends, grandsons, sons, brothers, boyfriends, husbands, and fathers, and to them, they were irreplaceable.