It’s hard not to be terrified right now; American society is beset on all sides by violence, economic peril, and ecological disaster, and threatened most seriously by the tens of millions of its own citizens who, fearing those things, are running into the arms of a political movement rooted in naked racism, hoping desperately for a return to the past.
But if we’re fortunate, the future will look like José Fernández.
Fernández and two other men died in a boating accident off Miami Beach early Sunday morning. He was 24 years old, a two-time All-Star, the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year, and the current National League leader in strikeout rate among qualifying starting pitchers. Fernández’s death itself, while tragic, is not particularly remarkable; godlike though ballplayers might seem, they’re just as mortal as any young men, and from Fernández to Óscar Taveras all the way back to Addie Joss, sometimes they die young.
Fernández’s career was remarkable, though — he struck out a greater percentage of the batters he faced than any qualifying starting pitcher in history. The only starter in the live ball era who had a lower career ERA in more career starts is Clayton Kershaw. But that alone doesn’t make him special either. When David Bowie died earlier this year, few cited his album sales. Nobody mourned Prince as a seven-time Grammy winner. Even Muhammad Ali’s career record was of only tangential importance to his legacy. Numbers and titles make an athlete great, and the images and feelings he evokes make him memorable. But within weeks of his major league debut, it was obvious that Fernández was one of very few athletes with the potential to become important.
Great as Fernández was as a player, his game paled in comparison to the mythology that surrounded him. The story of his daring escape from Cuba at age 15 — successful only on his fourth attempt, during which he had to save his mother from drowning — is repeated frequently by baseball fans who in telling it take on the saucer-eyed wonder of a missionary. It’d be an inspiring story even if Fernández had emerged embittered, and not one of the most beloved figures in the game. I never met Fernández, but people who did, like Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, and Tigers third baseman Casey McGehee, who played with Fernández for parts of two seasons, eulogized him as a man whose personality was as inspirational as his biography.
The defining image of Fernández is not the black ink on his Baseball-Reference page, or even his distinctive drop-and-drive delivery or churning curveball, but his smile, a jocular, open-mouthed grin that cajoled bystanders into a state of happiness. And it’s not just one picture, because he made that face all the time, and every baseball fan has his or her favorite. Here’s mine.
Fernández, on the right, had just hit his first career home run, then stopped to admire it and spat on the ground near Braves third baseman Chris Johnson (with whom he’d exchanged words earlier in the game) as he rounded the bases. This was in the days when the Braves were baseball’s fun police, so the benches cleared, and as Fernández was pulled out of the fight, he turned down the third-base line and dialed up a grin that led SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee to dub him “the Mike Trout of don’t-give-a-shit face.”
That image happens only for a special player, a 21-year-old rookie skilled enough on the mound to change the atmosphere of the game and athletic enough to turn around and hit a ball out of the park — someone exuberant enough to celebrate his first big league home run the way any kid off the street would, competitive enough to start a fight with the opposing team, and relentlessly positive enough not only to have a blast doing it, but to expect everyone else to have as much fun as he was. And to do all this after a childhood that ought to be engraved on the Statue of Liberty.
As baseball combats problems with race and youth outreach, here was Fernández, a 24-year-old Cuban American at the top of the game and more excited than anyone to be there. He could’ve been — by all rights ought to have been — a transcendent cultural figure, a cross between Ken Griffey Jr. and Roberto Clemente, a superstar the likes of which the sport hadn’t seen in a generation, whose broader cultural importance dwarfed what we could reasonably expect from an athlete. There is nobody in the game, not Trout, not Kershaw, not Manny Machado, not Bryce Harper, whose loss would have left a bigger void.
Bereft of Fernández’s unique skill and potential to become that iconic, Clemente-esque figure, it’s unnerving for us to see that smile, to be reminded of what he represented and is now lost. Maybe someday it won’t be such a haunting image.
If we’re fortunate.