By the sixth inning of his final start of his first season in the majors, on Sept. 11, 2013, Jose Fernandez had done almost everything that a 21-year-old rookie pitcher could do. He had dominated the National League with his 97-mph fastball and swerving curveball, and he was doing the same against the Braves that night, putting the finishing touches on a 16–8 record, a 2.19 ERA and the Rookie of the Year award. There was just one thing left: He wanted to hit a home run.
Most players, obeying baseball tradition, turn within themselves before a start or an important plate appearance; they want to be left alone. Fernandez, never one to do what he was supposed to do, was not that way. Regularly that season, when he stood in the on-deck circle, he turned to Jeffrey Loria’s field box and told the Marlins’ owner that this was the at-bat that would end with hit his first roundtripper. He always smiled, and though he hadn’t yet managed to come through as of that mid-September evening, he said it to Loria again before striding to the box to face Atlanta starter Mike Minor. “This is my last at-bat of the year,” he said. “I’m going to do it.”
“All right, big guy,” Loria told Fernandez. “Let’s see it.”
Fernandez swung at Minor’s second pitch and crushed it. The ball sailed deep over the leftfield fence at Marlins Park. Fernandez seemed genuinely in awe of the moment: For a few seconds, he stood and watched it go, then he slowly circled the bases, savoring it.
The Braves didn’t like it. Third baseman Chris Johnson began jawing at Fernandez as he turned for home, and catcher Brian McCann held him up there to admonish him. “There were some guys in the dugout who weren’t too happy with the smiling after getting people out and all that kind of stuff,” Johnson would later explain.
Yes: the smiling. Soon, the benches had cleared, and the teams were conducting another light skirmish provoked by a perceived violation of baseball’s shopworn norms. To be fair, it must have been annoying not only to be mystified by a rambunctious 21-year-old on the mound, but also to have him exceed the previous limitations of his already considerable skillset by hitting a bomb against you. Another way to look at it, though, is that if you don’t like the way a kid reacts to hitting his first ever big league home run, that's your problem.
That was how Fernandez seemed to view it, anyway. In the image that best captures the affair, many of his teammates and opponents are in the midst of the scrum in the center of the frame. On the outskirts is Fernandez, his batting helmet still in his hands. He is beaming, the homer still consuming his thoughts, his teeth providing the focal point of light in an otherwise muddy tableau of orange and gray.
“He was the most animated, full of life person I ever met,” the 75-year-old Loria told SI.com on Monday morning, about 31 hours after Fernandez had died at the age of 24 in a boating accident, dashing his future on the rocks of a Miami jetty and leaving behind a heartbroken baseball world and a grieving family, including a girlfriend who is pregnant with his first child. “He lit up the world.”
There was no pretense with Fernandez. Players, especially those as fabulously and precociously talented as he was, are supposed to respect the game, which means playing it according to the specifics of a code passed down to them from time immemorial. But Fernandez brought something else to baseball, something better than a miniscule ERA and a curveball that seemed a violation of the laws of physics: love—a love that he displayed every minute, a love that he couldn’t suppress. He couldn’t suppress it even in those remarkable, public moments when he really was supposed to, and he couldn’t suppress it in those quiet moments that no one saw.
This spring, his first since undergoing Tommy John surgery, Fernandez wound up as the throwing partner of Craig Breslow, a 36-year-old lefthanded reliever who had recently joined the Marlins, his seventh team in 11 seasons. The two made 50 throws to each other on perhaps 25 different days. Many young aces might have gruffly tried to establish their alpha dog bona fides when paired with a veteran who had 10 years on him—as well as a World Series ring—but that was not nearly Fernandez’s way. Instead, he was delighted by each and every pitch Breslow threw to him, especially his breaking ball. “Holy s---!” he would shout with genuine glee, whenever Breslow spun one.
“He told me every day how good my breaking ball was,” Breslow recalled on Monday. “It was not. But he was so passionate that I started to believe him. He was just a kid. Not just age-wise, but in his excitement and passion. You could see how it could be construed as conceit or immaturity. Really, it was just fun loving. While his life was cut far too short, he may have gotten more enjoyment out of his 24 years than many do in 100.”
Until the day he died, Fernandez was, in many respects, the same person that Stan Meek, the Marlins’ scouting director, first saw pitch in a Florida high school tournament in the fall of 2010. All scouts could see his stuff, but Meek held out hope that he might fall to the Marlins, who were picking 14th, because he was a high school righty, notoriously the most unpredictable category of amateur. Fernandez fell. “He was one of very few guys you draft with whom you felt like if you put him on the mound and let him get his innings in, there’s not a lot to do,” Meek said early on Monday. “Very rarely does a guy pan out like you see in your mind’s eye. That’s what he did.”
He did it right up until last Tuesday, five days before he died, when he took the mound against the Nationals for what would prove to be his life’s final start. That night, he pitched with the same passion he always showed, but he channeled it in a way that Meek had never seen before. He threw eight shutout innings, striking out 12, allowing three hits and no walks. “I thought it was the best game I ever saw him throw,” Meek says. “He didn’t have much effort in his delivery. More workmanlike, less emotion. Three plus-plus pitches, plus-plus delivery. Dominated. To me, he went to another level. That was hard to do for someone like him, to take it to a next level. I found myself thinking: Who knows how many games he’ll win? Who knows what kind of records he’ll set?”
He won his 38th game that night; he won’t win a 39th. In the hours after his death, though, his legacy began to coalesce, and it did so in an unexpected way. He was remembered, of course, for his preternatural talent. No All Star had ever died so young. More than that, though, he was remembered for the very thing that led the benches to clear on that September night three years ago: his personality, his passion, his charisma, his smile, his love.
On Monday night, the Marlins played their first game without him, against the Mets. They paid tribute to him in the normally acceptable, staid baseball ways: Dee Gordon, his close friend, hit a leadoff homer, and Miami won the game, 7–3. But the players also allowed their emotions to flood the field, just as Fernandez would have done.
As he rounded third, Gordon wiped tears from his eyes. After the last pitch, the Marlins circled the pitcher’s mound with their arms on each other’s shoulders, all of them wearing jerseys that read FERNANDEZ 16. Their leader, Giancarlo Stanton—who is himself just 26, and who was supposed to form the club’s nucleus with Fernandez for at least the next two years, until Fernandez reached free agency, if not forever—spoke to them. Then, as many of them wept, they raised their hats to the sky and left them on the mound, next to a single, solitary baseball.
“He won’t be replaced, and he can’t be replaced,” Loria said on Monday morning. Just as no one had ever before seen anyone quite like Jose Fernandez, no one had ever seen anything on a baseball field quite like the Marlins’ tribute to their fallen teammate. This, in fact, might his legacy, and the lesson that a hidebound institution, and a hidebound world, will draw from him: Loving what you do and who you do it with, and being unafraid to show it, is the best form of respect of all.