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José Fernández Was a Singular Superstar

The precocious performer’s incomprehensible death is to baseball what Buddy Holly’s was to rock and James Dean’s was to movies

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Getty Images

Last night, for the first time in ages, I put my phone into airplane mode when I wasn’t about to take off. Away for the weekend, without cable or Wi-Fi, I withdrew for one night from the steady buzz of baseball, that constantly comforting, sometimes tormenting soundtrack to seven months of the year. When I woke up and reluctantly rejoined the world, I saw a text from my editor, awash in the flood of dammed-up alerts:

“Oh my God. José Fernández.”

It’s a testament to Fernández’s talent that tragedy wasn’t where my mind went. My first thought was that I’d missed another masterful Fernández performance, like the game he pitched just five days ago against a first-place team: eight innings, three hits, no walks, 12 strikeouts, several kisses from Barry Bonds — by Game Score, the third-best start of his career, and one of the 20 best in baseball this year. Surely he’d pitched a no-hitter, perhaps a perfect game; given how he’d awed us since his dazzling debut in 2013, when no one was harder to hit, it seemed unlikely that he hadn’t delivered one yet. And if it hadn’t been one of those relatively run-of-the-mill untouchable moments, an assault on some peak that other pitchers had previously summited, then maybe the man who had history’s highest strikeout rate had done something unprecedented: become the first to top 20 strikeouts in a single start. With Fernández, an early-morning “oh my God” wasn’t out of the ordinary. He was the majors’ most likely player to prompt that intake of breath, that barely believing smile, that need to tell someone what we just saw.

If the cause of this “oh my God” wasn’t a great game, it might have been a great GIF, another few frames of a hitter flailing at the game’s most successful slider. Or it might have been our latest look at baseball’s best smile. No player — apart, perhaps, from Adrián Beltré and Bartolo Colón, the latter of whom Fernández would have faced in Miami on Monday — produced more moments that were memorable not just because of the baseball, but because of the person. Whenever Fernández played, his personality poured through: The time he robbed Tulo, the time he pimped his first homer, the time he went wild after a game-tying Giancarlo Stanton moonshot took him off the hook. He didn’t even need to have a uniform on: What on-field moment could be better than his reunion with his grandmother, whom he’d left when he defected at 15 from Cuba? Fernández belonged to that rare breed of athlete who gloried in being great without alienating anyone (well, anyone but Brian McCann). He seemed so delighted, so grateful for his gifts and his chance to use them, that no one could begrudge him his brilliance.

Only after flashing through what I hoped and believed would be another in a long line of high points did I consider a sadder interpretation — and even then, only sad by sports standards. Since Fernández made the jump from high-A to the majors, skipping past two minor league levels with no ill effects, it had seemed certain that only a torn ulnar collateral ligament could take him away. When that fear came true in 2014, we mourned as if we’d suffered some permanent loss. But that loss turned out to be temporary: Fernández returned from Tommy John with his beaming light undimmed, just as happy and unhittable as he’d been before. Last week, one of my podcast partners and I declared the Marlins’ season a success in part because Fernández had remained healthy, exhibiting no sign of weakness in his repaired right arm. So that was the worst case I could conjure: the elbow again.

All of which makes this loss, the real loss, harder to comprehend. The truth behind the text was far worse than any outcome I’d considered. The 24-year-old Fernández and two friends were killed during Sunday’s early hours, when the boat they’d been riding — unwinding, one imagines, the way anyone young, successful, and wealthy would, after a Marlins win and with no need to work the next day — collided with the rocks off Miami Beach. Boating accidents have claimed baseball players before, but it makes the universe appear particularly cruel for that fate to befall Fernández, whom a boat brought into our lives and who saved his mother from a similar end.

Fernández’s death, like that of Óscar Taveras after his 2014 rookie season, is the bad kind of breathtaking. His death is to baseball what Buddy Holly’s was to rock and what James Dean’s was to movies, the sudden stripping away of a precocious performer who was already one of the best and probably had even better ahead of him. At moments like these — not that there have been many, or any, moments like these involving athletes with Fernández’s combination of youth, accomplishment, and charisma — we struggle to decide what we could or should say. We want to express our pain, but we’re aware that the loss others have experienced makes our own pale in comparison.

First, there’s Fernández, who lost most of what was likely to be a legendary life in the country that adopted him as a citizen last year. He was about to be a father, and from the beginning, he’d been among baseball’s elite, with no visible ceiling restricting his continuing climb. Second, there are his loved ones — his parents, his pregnant girlfriend, and his unborn child, who’ll have no firsthand memories of Fernández, only home videos and highlight reels. Their loss is unimaginable to those who haven’t lived through similar losses of their own. Roll up the sadness of every sports fan who knew Fernández from afar into one ugly ball, and it would look like a marble compared to the Raiders of the Lost Ark–size boulder that’s borne down on Fernández’s family, friends, and teammates.

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Getty Images

For that reason, it seems selfish to talk about what we lost. But so much of our mourning has some selfishness to it, a grief that takes root in place of a pleasure we’ve been deprived. Thousands of people — many of them young, poor, oppressed, and just as deserving of our sadness — die every day, and I don’t wake up to texts from my editor. I woke up to one today because Fernández’s journey and emotion transcended the screen, making him much more than a stranger — more, even, than the many players whose résumés we recite without knowing how they made the majors or what they were like. While we are, at most, tertiary victims of this tragedy, our lives will be less rich for Fernández’s absence.

Every time Fernández pitched, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, paid attention, transfixed as we watched his pitches move in ways we’d never seen, or his strikeout count climb in the box score. His victories made us forget our failures for a while, which is why we watch sports. He meant much more than most players to fans who felt some small reflection of his joy; to Miami’s Cuban community; to Latinos who saw him display the unbridled love of baseball that the sport’s less demonstrative stars often try to tamp down.

It can be crass to cite stats when we’ve only just learned that a player’s career numbers have been set in stone. But if the best way to mark death is to celebrate life, then today is an appropriate time to say this: In baseball’s long history, only Clayton Kershaw and Pedro Martínez, among starters, have accumulated more WAR per inning pitched than Fernández, which means that only two players have ever been better at baseball across the entirety of the time they spent on the mound. Had he lived to complete his career, Fernández’s decline phase might have dropped him down that leaderboard, but now it never will.

Fernández should have had more time to spread his happiness, to cement his dominance, to set records, to experience postseason play. This, then, is one of those moments that make us wish we could live our lives in airplane mode, safe from those negative notifications that arrive in the night. And yes, it’s one of those moments when we’re both bitter about and grateful for baseball, the game that goes on despite dark clouds, despite death, despite world war. It won’t go on today in Miami, where the Marlins and Braves had been scheduled to play. I wish, as we all wish, that those two teams could have played what we would have considered a meaningless matchup; that my editor’s text had been sent for some other reason; and that Fernández could have taken the ball tomorrow, to work more of the wonders we never would have stopped wanting to watch.