When Bryce Harper cracked on baseball needing to loosen up and have more fun, in a magazine profile published during spring training, he had players like Jose Fernandez on his mind as one of those who stood as evidence for the defense. Harper rather admired Fernandez’s ability not to take himself or the game so seriously that it became a job alone, an admiration that came slowly to others.
“Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist,” Harper said of the young Marlins ace who was killed with two close friends in a boating accident Sunday morning. “And if you hit a homer and pimp it? He doesn’t care. Because you got him. That’s part of the game. It’s not the old feeling – hoorah … if you pimp a homer, I’m going to hit you right in the teeth. No. If a guy pimps a homer for a game-winning shot … I mean – sorry.”
David Schoenfeld of ESPN amplified the point. “He had that rare charisma that you can feel even through a TV screen, a personality in a sport that tries to turn everyone into a cyborg of dull professionalism,” he wrote. “That joy initially rubbed some players the wrong way; he had a couple of flare-ups with opposing players, who maybe believed the young Cuban was a little too cocky.”
At the end of his rookie season in 2013, Fernandez batted against Atlanta’s Mike Minor and hit one far over the left field fence. The kid stood a moment, half admiring what he’d done, half disbelieving it, before taking his trip around the bases. His arrival at the plate was greeted with umbrage by then-Braves catcher Brian McCann, one of those living corpses whose “professionalism” explains a lot about why baseball has a public image problem, why the game seems lifeless in play and in discourse by those who play it.
The next thing you knew, both benches had emptied over it. Somehow, the Marlins hustled Fernandez back to their dugout and away from the scrum, where the pitcher flashed his impossible to resist grin, almost as if to say he couldn’t quite believe what he’d just experienced and was then seeing. This game is supposed to be fun, his face seemed to say.
He apologised—sort of—the next day. And barely changed a whit since. The wrenching irony is that Fernandez was out in the wee small hours of Sunday morning in the first place because he’d been distraught over an argument with his girlfriend. He sought teammates to join him aboard his boat; finding none, he enlisted two close friends, Eddy Rivero and Emilio Macias. All three were killed on impact when the boat hit a jetty at high speed.
In due course his opponents came to understand he wasn’t acting out of character. He really was that exuberant—whether he was striking you out, hitting one out now and then, or making an out that would send other, stiffer young men seeking a rug under which to crawl and hide. Fernandez was almost the reincarnation of Jose Lima, the human antidepressant who had big fun whether pitching a division series masterpiece of a five-hit shutout or getting every other service he offered hit for distance.
A guy who spends time in a Cuban jail for trying to defect as a teenager, then makes it to the United States on his fourth try, having to save his mother from drowning while he was at it, and gets to play the game he loves in a place where he couldn’t quite believe it wasn’t ok to love it out loud while you played it, has a different perspective from the native fuddy-duddies to whom baseball is one step removed from running a mortuary.
“He breaks with the team out of camp, he’s fist-pumping and screaming, cheerleading from the dugout nonstop,” remembered A.J. Ellis, now with the Phillies. “But the consistency he did it with proved how genuine it was. You could see the passion and joy of playing, and you realize it’s not showing up the other team. It’s the joy of competing, the joy of him and his teammates being successful. You can’t fault anybody for that. You actually admire people for that.”
You damn well should. Fernandez would flash that big boyish grin after striking you out one minute, then lose it in laughter after striking out at the plate. In June, he took a swing at the curve ball of Arizona’s Zack Godley and his bat got nowhere near the ball. He turned and headed back to the dugout barely able to suppress a hearty laugh. ”[D]eep down,” said Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy after learning of Fernandez’s death, “I think we most envied the fun he had while doing something so difficult.”
“He just loved to be out there,” Mets manager Terry Collins—whose charges had the unenviable task of facing the grief-stricken Marlins the day after Fernandez’s death, and losing, with Dee Gordon smashing a leadoff bomb in the bottom of the first—told the New York Times. “It was his stage. I wish more guys were like that. I wish more guys really had fun, like he did, playing the game.”
Don’t just wish it. Do it. Tell the Goose Gossages of the world to take their professionalism and shove it. Yoenis Cespedes did, sort of, when Gossage cracked on Jose Bautista’s bat flip last fall, after hitting the bomb that yanked the Blue Jays toward the American League Championship Series. ”Whenever a pitcher strikes someone out, they get to celebrate too and have their moment and revel in it,” he told ESPN during spring training. “Why can’t the batters get a chance to enjoy their success, too? I’m not too worried about what anyone says about me. I just go out there and do my job. That’s what I’m going to focus on.”
Why, indeed. There were plenty, including yours truly, who thought the infamous choke Jonathan Papelbon tried laying on Harper on Fan Appreciation Day last fall had its seed in Harper talking publicly and in disgust—not to mention as a likely retaliation target—after Papelbon threw twice at the head of Baltimore’s Manny Machado, likely retaliating after Machado hit a go-ahead bomb off Max Scherzer earlier in the game and watched it sail over the fence for a moment before running it out.
As a pitcher, Fernandez already threatened to travel in extraterrestrial company. In his rookie season, batters hit a measly .182 against him. That’s the lowest in a season of all but four: Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martinez (who’s called Fernandez “a better talent than I was”), Nolan Ryan, and Luis Tiant. This year, his final statistics will include sixteen wins, a 2.86 earned run average, 253 strikeouts in 182.1 innings, and—in his last start—beating the Nationals 1-0 with twelve punchouts in eight innings, two starts after he waxed the Dodgers with fourteen punchouts in seven innings.
And it means three things next to the loss of a pitcher who did his best to remind his adopted country (he became a U.S. citizen in 2015) that there isn’t a bloody thing wrong with having a good time while playing professional baseball. Jack, diddley, and squat.
The Mets earned the Marlins’ respect Monday night when they made a point of giving every Marlin in uniform a hug before the game. (“First class,” said Gordon of the gesture.) Players all around the Show expressed genuine grief over the 24-year-old’s death.
But if those who play the game really want to respect Fernandez’s brief but impeccable legacy, as a pitcher and as a young man, they’ll knock it the hell off with this stiff-as-a-board “professionalism.” Let the hitters flip their bats and admire their bombs. Let the pitchers fan imaginary pistols, grin, or pump their firsts when they strike out the biggest mashers in the game. Let the boys in the field bang their gloves after they make WebGem plays.
And stop acting like the old fart bellowing “Get off my lawn!” when they’re not crossing his lawn, they’re just playing the game. Whether they’re in a spring training exhibition or trying to end 108-year-old World Series championship droughts.
“Mike, you’ve got to relax,” Dick Allen once counseled Mike Schmidt, when Allen was near the end of his brilliant but fractured career, a career fractured by racism and Allen’s long-since-admitted mishandling of it, and Schmidt was a nervous young third baseman. “You’ve got to have some fun. Remember when you were just a kid and you’d skip supper to play ball? You were having fun. Hey, with all the talent you’ve got, baseball ought to be fun. Enjoy it. Be a kid again.”
With so comparatively few able to play major league baseball at all, baseball ought to be fun. Maybe that’s Jose Fernandez’s real legacy, above and beyond his outsize talent. It might give the fans in the stands and in front of their television sets some real fun again. It might even begin attracting more than just a bunch of old farts in twentysomething bodies to play it.