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Gone in a Flash

As the All-Star Game descends upon Miami, it's impossible not to remember how Jose Fernandez lit up the field
MLB.com @RichardJustice

Jose Fernandez's teammates knew the moment he walked through the clubhouse door each day. They will forever remember that voice and especially that laugh. He had enthusiasm for, well, pretty much everything. He got on teammates almost everyday. They laughed when he did this. He got on them some more.

"He was like a little kid," Marlins Manager Don Mattingly said. "He just had this energy about him. Everyone felt it."

Jose Fernandez's teammates knew the moment he walked through the clubhouse door each day. They will forever remember that voice and especially that laugh. He had enthusiasm for, well, pretty much everything. He got on teammates almost everyday. They laughed when he did this. He got on them some more.

"He was like a little kid," Marlins Manager Don Mattingly said. "He just had this energy about him. Everyone felt it."

Young fans flocked to him. His personality and smile were infectious. He embraced the attention, too, and soaked it into his soul. He signed autographs and posed for photos. He occasionally brought young fans into the Marlins clubhouse for a tour and to make them feel important. Funny thing about those visits: Fernandez's teammates remember that he seemed to get more joy from them than anyone. That energy, that enthusiasm, that sheer love of life is the thing they remember now, nearly 10 months since his stunning death at 24 in an early morning boat accident.

There was a morning in Spring Training 2014 when Fernandez excitedly made his way from teammate to teammate, showing off backstage photos he'd taken at a concert the night before. He seemed to want all of them to share what he had experienced. He flipped through the photos on his phone excitedly, happily. This life, this amazing life, was surely more than he ever dreamed.

Few players have been as ever-present in their community as Fernandez. He visited hospitals, he chatted up folks in restaurants, and he convinced them that those few minutes with them were the best few minutes of his day.

***

These moments seemed to be validation that his life had a dreamlike quality to it. That's what his teammates saw frequently. That laughter, that cackling laugh, they will not forget.

"It was easy to love [him]," said former Marlins General Manager and Manager Dan Jennings. "He was like a big puppy, and he had a smile that spoke every language. He would needle you, but he would also make fun of himself."

When athletes die young, they leave a void among the people who knew them best. Their energy and their presence, a constant, suddenly is not there. That void is not filled easily. That's especially true within a baseball team. From February until October, players often see more of their teammates than their families.

His life was brief, his fame meteoric. He was the kind of talent that franchises spend decades searching for. His fastball crackled at 95 mph, shattering bats, buckling knees. He knew it, too. He was 20 years old when he jogged to the mound at Citi Field on April 7, 2013, for his first game. He threw eight pitches in that first inning against New York, four of them clocked at 95 mph or better. He retired the first 10 Mets he faced, including in the second inning, when he struck out the side on a fastball that touched 97 mph and a curveball that was a thing of beauty.

Video: MIA@NYM: Fernandez strikes out eight in MLB debut

Six days later, Fernandez followed that outing by authoring six shutout innings against the Phillies. He pitched with joy and emotion in that game and acknowledged the fans with a tip of the hat.

Sure, he sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. All that energy, all that emotion, was real, though. That's the thing every player who got to know him would say.

When Fernandez homered against the Braves that season, he stood at home plate to admire it, then barked toward the Atlanta dugout as he rounded the bases. The Braves took offense and benches cleared. Afterward, Fernandez apologized, saying, "I feel embarrassed. This isn't high school. I made a mistake. I'm going to learn from it."

When he died, Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman would say: "He's one of the best people I've ever met."

Truth is, Fernandez probably wasn't sure what he'd done wrong after that home run. What's wrong with having fun? What's wrong with expressing it? Who could be mad at a 21-year-old kid living the American Dream, soaking in every ounce of it? 

Years from now when we think of Jose Fernandez, this ought to be what we remember: He was spectacularly good. In four seasons, a mere 76 starts, his career arc had no ceiling. He averaged 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings. He had a 2.58 career ERA, a number that had his trajectory headed to places very few ever go. He struck out at least 10 hitters 18 times and got 14 five times.

"Sometimes, he just makes guys look silly," teammate Giancarlo Stanton said.

Only one other pitcher in modern baseball history has made 76 starts with an ERA that low: Clayton Kershaw.

Once, when former Marlins Manager Mike Redmond pulled him after an eight-inning, 13-K performance against the Pirates, Fernandez jumped out of the dugout and pretended he was going to run back onto the field in front of closer Steve Cishek.

"It's so much fun, every pitch for me," he said that night. "The fans have just been incredible. The way you treat them with love and you get a lot of love back, that's just amazing. For me, the fans are as important as the game."

Video: 2016 MLB Awards: Player-Fan Interaction - Fernandez

When he returned from Tommy John surgery in 2015, he said, "I learned what it would be to have a dream taken away. I always appreciated it. I will appreciate it even more." And after what would be his final start, against the Nationals, he said: "You hope to get the ball in a game like this. This is what you work for."

Indians Manager Terry Francona remembers sitting on the dais in New York as Fernandez accepted the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year Award. "He gave his speech in Spanish," Francona said. "And at the end he said, 'I'll do this next year in English.' I just remember watching that and thinking it was pretty cool."

***

Fernandez made the National League All-Star team twice. Both times, he did a pretty good imitation of the happiest man on the planet. He would have loved this All-Star Game, this South Florida showcase. He'd fallen in love with Miami, with its melting pot of cultures and foods and music and the rest.

He was the epitome of the American Dream, the Cuba-born youngster who risked his life to get to America. That story resonated deeply in the fiber of South Florida. He would have wanted to show off the city, to be the face of the Marlins. He would have been everywhere, dropping in on schools and retirement homes, and showcasing Marlins Park to baseball's biggest stars.

Jose Fernandez will be celebrated at this All-Star Game, and every National Leaguer will see his locker in the home clubhouse, with his clothes and gear still hanging in it. That's one of the ways his teammates have paid tribute to him.

"I think Jose is with us all the time," Mattingly said. "His energy and his personality and his joy for the game stay with us hopefully forever."

Fernandez rightfully will be celebrated as one of baseball's most compelling figures and one of its greatest cautionary tales. When the Marlins remember his short life, they weep for many things. They weep for the very real sense of loss. They weep for the amazing life he could have lived. They will someday wrap their minds around his death, that he roared into their lives a bundle of energy and talent, did everything fast, and then, incomprehensibly, he was gone. 

Here's hoping that he's remembered more for how he lived than how he died. He lived doing the very thing he loved, doing it for fans who'd fallen in love with him. He may have been one of the greatest of his generation, but to focus on that is missing the point of his life.

He'd realized his dream. He'd understood how lucky he was. After he won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2013, he drove to Orlando to do a round of TV interviews at the annual General Managers Meetings. One morning he dropped in on an MLB Network set, and when he was finished, he went around to the crew -- the behind-the-camera technicians and makeup people -- to thank them individually for simply wanting to talk to him.

Jose Fernandez died early on Sept. 25, 2016, when his boat smashed into a pier. When the toxicology report was released, the Marlins had finished their season and gone their separate ways. Many of them, including Stanton, say they needed the offseason to grieve for their friend and attempt to come to grips with his death.

That surely will be a long time happening. In the end, they will have their memories. Memories of that laughter and that presence. Memories of that happy young man living the dream. Memories of all that talent, all that what-could-have-been. This should have been his All-Star Game. In ways no one wanted to imagine, it still will be.

This article appears in the 2017 MLB Official All-Star Game Program. Read more features on allstargame.com.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Miami Marlins, Jose Fernandez