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Ozuna on Fernandez: I 'keep him in my heart'

Outfielder reports to Cardinals Spring Training, reflects on former teammate
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

JUPITER, Fla. -- Marcell Ozuna pushed open the doors of his new clubhouse Saturday, and with it, walked into a new future with St. Louis. Still, he couldn't help talk about the past. The wounds it left are still too tender, the painful tug of it too strong, especially back at the spring complex he once shared with Jose Fernandez.

The memory of the late Fernandez, whom Ozuna called his "best friend," will never leave the outfielder's mind. He looks to it for guidance, for support, when things seem dim or when he just needs to smile. Even last season, when Ozuna wove the loose edges of his tremendous talent into a full package of production, he found himself writing Fernandez's name in chalk and looking to the heavens for help.

JUPITER, Fla. -- Marcell Ozuna pushed open the doors of his new clubhouse Saturday, and with it, walked into a new future with St. Louis. Still, he couldn't help talk about the past. The wounds it left are still too tender, the painful tug of it too strong, especially back at the spring complex he once shared with Jose Fernandez.

The memory of the late Fernandez, whom Ozuna called his "best friend," will never leave the outfielder's mind. He looks to it for guidance, for support, when things seem dim or when he just needs to smile. Even last season, when Ozuna wove the loose edges of his tremendous talent into a full package of production, he found himself writing Fernandez's name in chalk and looking to the heavens for help.

"I talked to the sky: 'Brother are you there? Help me the most you can,'" said Ozuna. "Some days, you go inside [the clubhouse] and next to you would have been a guy you loved, that you spent time with, that was a friend. And you don't see him. That's hard. "You say, 'Come on, let's go. Give me the strength to play the game like you did before.'"

Fernandez famously wore a constant, infectious smile. The similar energy Ozuna brings was evident on his first day at Cardinals camp on Saturday, when he cracked jokes with reporters and cage tosses from coaches.

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A day before position players were required to report, the club's premier offseason acquisition held court in a corner of the clubhouse reserved for veterans. Rap music blasted for the first time this spring. Dexter Fowler -- who welcomed Ozuna to the team via FaceTime (a call that included Barry Bonds, who coached Ozuna in Miami, as well) over the winter -- offered one of many joyous bear hugs.

Shortly after the Cardinals traded three prospects to the Marlins for him in December, Ozuna was welcomed into a team group chat by Carlos Martinez. The two have known each other since the low Minors and have since bonded over similar experiences. Martinez (26) and Ozuna (27) are nearly the same age, come from the same country (Dominican Republic) and both have lost close teammates to tragic, sudden deaths. Martinez was especially close to late Cardinals outfielder Oscar Tavares, who died in a car accident in 2014 at age 22. Fernandez died in a boating accident off Miami in '16, at age 24. Both deaths rocked the baseball world.

Tweet from @Cardinals: No gloves needed! #CardsSpringTraining pic.twitter.com/BUG37sWahP

"I have fun and enjoy the game," Ozuna said. "After you lose your best friend, Jose Fernandez, it's hard. The only thing I put in my mind [last season] was, I don't want to have time to think. I am going to do my job and I'm going to keep him in my heart and have fun."

It's this emotional pivot that Ozuna credits, more than anything physical, for the rousing success he enjoyed in 2017. A National League All-Star for the second time, Ozuna blossomed into one of the top outfielders in baseball, hitting .312/.376/.548 with 37 home runs and 124 RBIs as part of the sport's most productive outfield units. Ozuna set career highs in almost every offensive category after a promising, if uneven, first four big league seasons.

Tweet from @Cardinals: Matheny���s thoughts on Ozuna���s professionalism and dedication. #CardsSpringTraining pic.twitter.com/dLu2fk8Rwi

"Its progression," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "I'll be the first one to tell him, 'What you did isn't your ceiling. Don't let that be your ceiling.'"

Matheny slotted Ozuna in as his cleanup hitter before camp even opened. With two years left of team control, the Cardinals hope Ozuna anchors their lineup for more than the immediate future. Whatever that brings in St. Louis, the outfielder will bring the spirit of Fernandez along with him.

"I am never going to forget," he said. "I will take it with me the rest of my life."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals, Marcell Ozuna