Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, at 24 one of the rising stars in baseball and a remarkable, charismatic young man as well, died when his boat hit a jetty at high speeds in the early morning hours last Sunday. He had escaped to the U.S. from Cuba at 15 after failing twice and being imprisoned by the Castro regime as punishment. How good a pitcher was he? At this point in his career, as good as any pitcher in the history of the game. What might he have accomplished? The possibilities were limitless.
Two of his friends were also killed in the accident, and he left a pregnant girlfriend behind. Baseball stars have died tragically mid-career before—Roberto Clemente, Thurman Munson, Harry Agganis, Ken Hubbs, Lymon Bostock…Lou Gehrig, of course…but seldom has a death in the sport caused such an widespread outpouring of grief.
Some random thoughts:
- I have a gut reaction to such deaths, when a young man or women of infinite promise and special talent dies due to his or her own recklessness and foolishness. This was the case with Fernandez; there is no denying it. His boat was speeding, going much too fast for the conditions. It was dark, and he may have been drinking: he had just left a bar. My reaction is anger. I can’t help it; I know he’s dead, and that he didn’t want that. Still, part of ethics is the belief that all human beings have an obligation to do what they can to be a productive part of society and join in the effort to make existence better for everyone. To those who have special abilities and talents, more should be expected, and they have a duty to recognize that their life is more than just their own, but part of the collective wealth that everyone shares as long as they live. Amazing people who throw their young lives away, and with it all they might have given to the rest of us–joy, thrills, inspiration, memories—make me especially furious. (I am merely routinely furious with ordinary people who throw their lives away.)
I am furious with John Belushi; I am furious with River Phoenix. I am furious with Whitney Houston, Jimmi Hendrix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and many more. It’s irrational and emotional, but at its core, I believe there is an ethics lesson that everyone, not just the brilliant and gifted, has to accept and heed. It is unethical to throw your life away, or to take unnecessary risks with it. In Jose Fernandez’s case, what he was gambling with was also the lives of his loved ones and loved one unborn; the welfare of his team and his community, and baseball itself. Perhaps if this thought had flickered past his mind that fatal morning, he would be alive and with us still.
- Arnold Palmer died that same day, and his death was completely overshadowed by the tragedy in Miami. Yet Palmer, at 87, lived the full life of a sports hero and was as important to his sport, pro golf, as anyone who ever swung a club. Of course there are good reasons why the young pitcher’s death was the bigger story: baseball is a more popular sport than golf; Fernandez was young and Palmer was old; one death was a tragedy, while Palmer died of old age. Most of all, however, the difference was that much of the public had forgotten about Palmer, though he had recently re-surfaced in a Xeralto TV ad. Palmer, however, had led the life that Fernandez should have led. He stayed alive; he avoided scandals; he was a great and generous man; he raised a family; he built and enhanced his sport. He was a champion.
The contrast brings to mind the most famous verse of A.E. Housman’s poem, “To An Athlete Dying Young”:
And the name died before the man.
- The Marlins cancelled their game on Sunday. I usually oppose such cancellations, for no matter what the tragedy, life goes on, the show must go on, we all must go one. In this case, I sympathize with it. The players on teams around the league seemed shattered. David Ortiz of the Red Sox was openly weeping during a pre-game moment of silence in Tampa, and he wasn’t alone. It is nearing the end of the season, and the cancelled game was more meaningful in its absence than it would have been if played. Nobody in Miami wanted to play games that day.
I think baseball had its priorities straight.
- The first game the Marlins played after the tragedy was in Miami on Monday night, against the Mets. Every Marlin wore Fernandez’s number, 16, on his back, with his name on their jerseys as well. The game was a wake. There was almost no cheering from the fans, either during a moving pre-game tribute to the fallen pitcher or during the game that followed. The climax of the ceremony was an almost unbearably moving rendition of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” played like Taps on a trumpet:
…followed by the National Anthem, sung beautifully by an a capella girls’ choir.
And it occurred to me that this is why we have the Anthem before sporting events and especially baseball games. The usual cultural destroyers and corrupters, sensing an opportunity with the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s incoherent protests, are now turning up the volume in their lobbying effort to kill this tradition. They don’t understand because their ideology won’t allow them to understand, yet they are capable of spreading their ignorance among those who haven’t learned. We sing or listen to the anthem because it is a binding community ritual, and an important one. It isn’t just patriotism: that’s what the tradition-killers, who are suspicious of love of country and those who profess it, will use as their wedge, but it is not just that and has never been just that.
Standing in a crowd of fellow citizens of all ages, colors and creeds, feeling and seeing them all around us, to listen to an old song symbolizing unity, pride, commitment and community as well as survival—remember, the flag was still there, during a turning-point in our history when the nation’s continued existence was in doubt—strengthens us all. It does so by reinforcing the societal connective tissue that unites us all with common values. The ritual demonstrates that all the rancor and division do not matter or at least shouldn’t matter; that we care about each other and the community, society, culture and nation we all belong to, more than we care about anything else.In this strange era where people sit next to each other staring at electronic devices instead of talking, interacting, and actively feeling part of a humanity, such rituals may be our salvation.
On Monday I saw whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans in a Miami ballpark, holding hands and silently mourning a young Cuban athlete who had become an American and who was loved, while “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung by children. That’s what the anthem is for. It exists to make us care about each other, not to divide us, and to reaffirm what is important. Life. Love. Friendship. Community. That’s the spirit of America. Still. Always.
Jose Fernandez, in his passing, reminded those who care enough to pay attention that we have more in common than not. Baseball, as it usually does, understands the heart of the U.S. and knows why the tradition of sharing the anthem is more than a “habit,” as a foolish ESPN writer claimed last week, even as the NFL and the sportswriting establishment cheers on the grandstanding ignorant who use it to divide us.
- Dee Gordon, the Marlins second-baseman, led off for the Marlins and hit a home run in the first inning on the third pitch to him. It felt like a personal salaute to Fernandez. Gordon wept as he circled the bases and later, as he was hugged by his team mates in the dugout. After the end of the game, which they won, the Marlins gathered in a circle around the pitcher’s mound, and bid their lost friend a final goodbye, leaving their caps behind on the mound as they left the field.