Jose Fernandez: A legacy of pure joy

September 25th, 2016

Everything about radiated hope. Those brown eyes that had seen so much yet shined so bright. The electric arm that racked up strikeouts at a record rate. The contagious smile. The enthusiastic way he rooted for his teammates. The passion he had for his family, for his sport, for his adopted country. And most recently, the excitement he shared with all of us on Instagram, where he announced he would soon become a father.
That hope left us early Sunday morning. Fernandez, just 24 years old and just a few days removed from a typically dominant start, was one of three men who died when a 32-foot boat overturned on a jetty off Miami Beach. And it is a gut-wrenching loss for Fernandez's family, for his girlfriend and unborn child, for the Marlins and for the entire sporting world.
:: Jose Fernandez: 1992-2016 ::
It is also an incomprehensible ending to what had been one of the game's more uplifting stories.
People from all walks of life and dots around our planet, in every clubhouse and fan base, admired the jubilant, refreshing and inspired gift that was Jose Fernandez. It was his talent that had him on a Hall of Fame track, but it was his zeal -- a quality that could not be contained by any unwritten rule -- that we'll remember most.
Watch him smile while confirming to that, yes, he did catch the uncatchable comebacker. Watch him react to a bottom-of-the-ninth blast. His was an unbridled earnestness impossible to replicate but easy to appreciate.
Fernandez was pure joy personified, and he never shied from his goal of becoming one of the game's all-time greats.
"I think that what makes a player good is not out there on the field; it's who he is as a person," Fernandez said in 2013, the season he was named National League Rookie of the Year at the age of 20. "I know where I came from, and I know what I want."
Fernandez and his family made three unsuccessful attempts to flee his native Cuba when he was a child, each resulting in a prison stay in which, he would say, he was treated "like an animal." Finally, on the fourth try, in 2008, he came here on a boat that was peppered with the bullets of soldiers as it sped from shore. The journey became more harrowing when, on the dark waters of the Gulf of Mexico, a female passenger fell off the side of the boat and Fernandez dove into the water to rescue her.
It was only when Fernandez pulled her up that he realized the woman was his mother, Maritza.
In the States, Fernandez built himself up from a doughy kid with no feel for pitching into a superstar. He was the best individual story of 2013, surprisingly promoted straight from Class A on Opening Day before treating us to an All-Star and Rookie of the Year effort. When Fernandez won the award, he was surprised by his beloved grandmother, Olga, the woman he had left behind in Cuba and longed for every day since.

Their tears flowed, as did ours.
The following year, Fernandez's elbow ligament snapped, and we -- naively, in retrospect -- thought that would be the only time the Fernandez story would break our heart. He grinded his way back, however, and reminded us that when the UCL is repaired by an expert surgeon, the real work has just begun.
"It's not magic," he said.
Fernandez, though, could make it look that way, couldn't he?
It wasn't long before Fernandez was back on the pitching pedestal, and though the Marlins rightly were careful with his innings this year, he was nothing short of one of the best pitchers in the game, as evidenced last Tuesday night, when he pitched eight scoreless innings against the Nationals in a 1-0 win. When Fernandez got MVP candidate to ground into, all too literally, his final out, he got mobbed in the dugout by his adoring mates.

Fernandez posted a 16-8 record with a 2.86 ERA, and his strikeout rate of 34.3 percent had been topped in a single season only by Hall of Famers Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. His Wins Above Replacement mark, as calculated by FanGraphs, was, at 6.2, the highest in the game.
In his too-brief career, Fernandez owned the opposition at Marlins Park, with a 1.49 ERA that stands as the best all-time among starting pitchers with more than three home starts to their name (hat tip to @aceofspaeder for that stat). His 31.2 percent strikeout rate for his career is the highest among any pitcher in history with at least 100 innings.
And yet all the numbers feel absolutely, heartbreakingly meaningless now.
This is the week we should be celebrating Fernandez's standing among the NL Cy Young contenders, not mourning his death. This young man was the epitome of what you could have wanted baseball's present and future to be.
To fans of the Marlins, or just the game in general, he was appointment viewing, the kid who was going to pitch Miami back to October. To opponents -- even the ones he was striking out with incredible frequency -- he was a respected competitor whose enthusiasm was infectious. To those of us in the media, he was charming, approachable, honest.
The Marlins canceled their game against the Braves on Sunday. Commissioner Rob Manfred issued a statement that MLB is "shocked and saddened." MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark said the union is "devastated," and social media was awash with reactions from people in and around the game who were trying to wrap their minds around this sudden, stunning development.
Thoughts turned to Steve Olin and Tim Crews, the Indians' pitchers who died in a boating accident in Spring Training in 1993. And to Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson and Darryl Kile and Nick Adenhart and Oscar Taveras and too many others who left us too soon.
But our collective loss as a baseball community obviously pales in comparison to the loss Fernandez's family is feeling right now. Fernandez, ultimately, was a product of their support and a reflection of their spirit, and our hearts go out to those who knew him best and loved him most.
Jose Fernandez was hope. How is it possible that he's gone?