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.
21 thoughts on “Random Ethics Thoughts On The Death Of Jose Fernandez”
Great post. You’re really on a roll.
Having grown up in Miami and having survived my teenagerdom (including some boating and cars, of course) and early adulthood, my first and lasting reaction was “Another young guy who didn’t survive being young and being a guy. Too bad. He could throw a baseball but he’s just as dead as any other kid who succumbs to typical youth induced bad judgment. Some of us survive those perilous times, others don’t.”
Nice contrast with Mr. Palmer (as he is known in Western PA). I was so distressed at Arnold’s passing I had failed to even make the connection with the erstwhile phenom from Cuba and Miami. Arnold looked near death this year at his golf tournament in Orlando. Seeing The King stripped of his trademark vitality was almost more sad than hearing he’d died. By the way, Arnold’s best friend and team mate from college, Lou Worsham’s brother (I think), was killed in a car crash while he and Arnold were at Wake Forrest. That similarly untimely death evidently haunted Arnold his entire life.
“We’re only immortal for a few years.” -John Mellenkamp (I think)
A brilliant and lovely piece of writing, Jack.
Beautiful, eloquent, and moving, Jack.
I don’t follow sports, even baseball, much these days. I barely keep up with the news. Still, I knew about Arnold Palmer and not about Jose Fernandez. Maybe Mr. Palmer’s passing was not as eclipsed as one might think.
This has to be one of the best things you have ever written.
That was beautifully written. Very moving. Thank you.
Thank you, Jack, for the most moving post I have ever read, anywhere. I share your instinctive anger at those exceptional young people who carelessly and needlessly throw their lives away. About five years ago, a young police officer in my county was killed in a single-vehicle crash, while responding at high speed to a call -in another jurisdiction- that he had not been dispatched to and where in fact he was not needed. His speed surpassed the design of the roadway and the laws of physics caught up with him in dramatic fashion. His vehicle went airborne and hit a huge utility pole broadside. He was killed (I hope instantly) and left behind a wife and two young children. Even as the community honored his service with a hero’s funeral, I seethed with anger at the reckless arrogance of youth and the needless death of this young man. By all accounts a rising star in his agency, he seemed destined for a successful career. But this was not to be, and his family and friends, colleagues and community, were all deprived of his abilities, influence and presence in their lives. A sad story, but one repeated so often across our society. Thanks again for this post.
Jim, I don’t see the point in being angry about these deaths. Life is dangerous. Being young is dangerous. We all do stupid things. Some of us have better luck than others. I just say “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Frustrating? Yes. Tragic? Yes. Cause for anger? I don’t think so.
I used to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It eventually occurred to me that, if there is a God (and I do believe there is), how can a just and compassionate God dole out grace to some and not to others? Like saying, after being too late to board an aircraft that crashes, that God protected you. Humph. Why didn’t God protect all of the crash victims? I don’t believe in fate or luck or a God who metes out mercy randomly. Life just is, and sometimes bad things happen because of evil, and sometimes bad things happen because of bad decisions, and sometimes bad things just happen. I’m always grateful that I actually wake up each day.
Oh, trust me, P, I don’t believe in God. And certainly not a God that decides who win football games, etc. It’s just one of those broadly used expressions that seems to have some currency. I could have said, “but for random chaos…”
You’re Catholic, correct?
So what god do you believe in as it relates to “justice”, “compassion” and “grace” especially as it relates to tragedy and evil?
What is the Catholic perspective on Romans 9:14-15 and its associated Exodus 33:19 ?
I won’t try to give you the RC perspective. Mine is that mercy, compassion, and justice are all human constructs. We consistently apply human attributes to God who is unfathomable. And therein lies the concept that humans have made God in their own image and likeness. Of course we do, have done, and will do. Because God is unknowable. It’s like the old story of the elephant being described by blind persons: one will feel the trunk and say that an elephant is like a snake; one will feel a leg and say the an elephant is like a tree; etc. Our limited abilities at perception force us to rely on human constructs, and we must acknowledge that they are flawed as descriptors of the numinous.
The Bible should not — nay, CAN NOT — be taken literally.
Hah. Texster. I’m a lapsed Catholic. But once a Catholic, always a Catholic. But I guess the question was addressed to Patrice. I don’t believe in God or an after life. (I told a devout RC Cuban high school buddy I was an atheist and he said “No, you’re an agnostic.” I had to look up “agnostic.” Not sure why it was important to him but it cracked me up.)
And yet here we are, stuck with an unfathomable (according to you) god, while “bad things” happen to “good people” and vice versa and the completely human ability to do your best to describe this relationship. And dodging the challenge does little to aid understanding.
Since Patrice can give her best human effort, just as Paul did 2000 years ago, the challenge again:
“So what god do you believe in as it relates to “justice”, “compassion” and “grace” especially as it relates to tragedy and evil?”
And a modified:
“What is Patrice’s perspective on Romans 9:14-15 and its associated Exodus 33:19 and how are such statements to be considered given your belief that one shouldn’t listen to the Bible even when one is Catholic?”
I’d say both of these qualify as Authentic Frontier Gibberish. I like the Book of Job, personally. And the Greeks, way before Saul/Paul. American society is really Classical Greek more than Christian. By a long shot. But I”ll bow out of this private fight now.
I didn’t say that Catholics should ignore the Bible. I said that it is not something to be construed literally. Otherwise, why would there be scripture scholars spending their entire lives working on interpreting the Bible?
And I didn’t dodge the challenge. The challenge dictates relationships that are not possible.
I won’ t claim that there is any real “point” to my anger, it is just a reaction ,and one that I struggle with. I retired after more than 40 years in law enforcement. I survived dozens of potentially fatal critical encounters during my career and it definitely was not primarily due to an overwhelming run of good luck. The acquired ability to consistently make good decisions and choices and take appropriate action played a big role as well. As a trainer I am always frustrated by those who disregard the training they receive and suffer bad but largely preventable consequences thereby. I know most of the trainers who trained the young officer in question, and I know he was trained better than to do what he did that got him killed. “There but for the grace of God” doesn’t cut it for me when someone who knows better behaves recklessly and foolishly and dies. I am always thinking about how we can prevent the “next guy” from meeting the same fate. The motto of my training unit was, “Never let the ghost of any officer say, ‘If only I had been better trained.’ ” Some would have to say, “If only I had acted as I was trained.” Thanks for your comment. Cheers!
Would that we all had super competent training in how to conduct every aspect of our dangerous lives when we are young. I see your point and your frustration and anger. I’d urge you not to feel as if you’ve failed when a student doesn’t act with the knowledge you’ve imparted to them. Education and the transfer of knowledge (usually hard gained) is one of the big frustrations and mysteries, isn’t it.