On Sunday morning, I nearly broke a promise that I have kept for almost five years.
You see, I used to be a little too invested into sports. And while I wouldn’t partake in a tailgate lot brawl, my younger years saw plenty of baseballs thrown and random sports equipment kicked around the house after a particularly painful loss.
In October of 2011, I stormed out of the house after my Philadelphia Phillies had been eliminated from the playoffs. When I slammed the door behind me, I managed to break part of the frame. After a stern talking-to from my then-girlfriend (and now loving wife), I promised that I’d never lose it over sports again.
When I popped into a friend’s house on Sunday after running some errands, the streak nearly ended.
Midway through stealing what was left of his freshly made bacon and just as I started into a rant about the previous night’s Georgia Southern game - which I got through with only moderate despair and cries of exasperation - my buddy started gesturing to the television.
On the air was a press conference from Miami where the death of Florida Marlins star pitcher Jose Fernandez was being announced.
I don’t think I’ve ever been in shock in my life. Maybe this was close. I think I stood there watching the TV for about 30 more seconds and then left without saying much of anything.
During the 20-minute drive back to my house, I turned on the sports stations and began to hear more details.
Jose Fernandez - dead at 24. He was poised to sign one of the richest contracts in history this upcoming offseason. Apparently the accident was just that - a horrible mistake not fueled by drugs or alcohol or any of the other dumb decisions usually associated with the deaths of young athletes.
Oh, and he just announced last week that he was going to be a dad.
I still can’t figure out just why this hit me so hard. After all, I never knew the guy and he doesn’t even play for my team. And yet, every detail making its way to me over the airwaves was cutting deeper and deeper.
Maybe I’m just a sympathetic guy? Maybe I was taking it badly because I’m a brand new dad?
Halfway home, I think I finally figured it out.
Jose Fernandez’s death is sad for all of the reasons listed above. It has also served as a devastating blow for the Cuban community, which held up Fernandez as a hero and proof of what can be achieved by their people trying to live the American dream.
When the eulogies about his love of the game started pouring in, I finally figured out my personal reason for being shaken. To me and to thousands of other guys who once dreamed of playing Major League Baseball, Jose Fernandez was the guy we all thought we’d be.
Even though I don’t follow the Marlins, a Fernandez start was sure to make the highlight reels and I was sure to watch. And it wasn’t just because of how dominant he could be - there are plenty of superstars whose highlights I don’t bother to click on. No, a Jose Fernandez highlight needed to be watched because you couldn’t see his brand of play anywhere else in the league.
Where other players make it a point to be stoic as if to show how routine this is for them, Fernandez never let an opportunity to celebrate sneak past him. Not the showing-up-your-opponent kind of celebration that gets talked about in the ‘unwritten rules’, but the kind of celebration full of raw happiness that most of us left behind in Little League.
Even better was how he seemed to take just as much enjoyment in the bad things. It wasn’t uncommon for Fernandez to stare down an opponent who had just ripped a hit off of his usually-unhittable stuff, only to break into a huge smile and even some applause once the batter took notice. Even on a bad night, Fernandez never looked like a guy who wasn’t aware of how great his life was and who was soaking in every second.
Again, Jose Fernandez is the guy we all wish we were.
He was a star player who made it to the very top of the game, yet played everyday like he was still on the recess yard with his best friends. He was the guy who had all the fame and fortune that anyone could ever want, but who was more concerned with getting his grandmother - who still lives in Cuba - some air conditioning and a radio so that she could hear him pitch.
He was a guy who remained in the dugout in full uniform - long after being removed from a game - that was waiting for a chance to celebrate the good play of a teammate, even after he had a rough night.
He was a guy who - as I’m writing this at 8:15 p.m. on Monday night - should be cruising into about the third inning of one of his final outings of the season.
Those thoughts are what almost made me break my promise. I nearly had to pull to the side of the road, overcome with sadness over his death even though it has taken me nearly two days to figure out the workings of exactly why it has hit so hard.
The Marlins are playing tonight, somehow, despite losing one of their leaders and best friends. And in a few months, a mother and her child will go on living, somehow, despite the absence of a guy who seemed just as excited to be a father as he was to strikeout the side.
And we’ll all move on as well. In a few more weeks, we’ll probably be back to arguing about the final month of the football season. Over the winter, we’ll shift to debating other sports. And, come spring, the Marlins - as much as it will still hurt - will run out five starting pitchers on the Opening Day roster who aren’t Jose Fernandez.
But that shouldn’t stop baseball fans from always saving a spot in their fandom for the kind of person and player who we all lost this past weekend.
I’ll promise to remember if you will.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.