Chris Johnson nearly fought Jose Fernandez on the field in 2013 as a member of the Braves. After he joined the Marlins, Fernandez became an inspiration.
Johnson opened up to S.L. Price in the Oct. 10, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated (“Your Story is Our Story”), explaining how the team’s late ace—who died in September at age 24 following a boating accident—altered the infielder's approach to baseball.
Fernandez hit his first career home run against Atlanta in 2013, and spit on the ground near Johnson, who was playing third base, as he rounded for home. Johnson took exception, and both benches memorably cleared. Johnson admitted he was nervous after signing with the team last January.
But Fernandez changed Johnson's mind: “I couldn’t have been more wrong,” Johnson told Price.
Johnson says Fernandez was the first player to welcome him to his new club. The pitcher joked about hitting him in live BP. As he watched Fernandez, Johnson developed tremendous respect for his teammate.
“How he treated me, how he went about his business, how he was the same when we won or lost, loud and smiling: It made me think this kid is not showing up the game,” Johnson said. “He’s not showing any player up. He’s out there completely free, having as much fun as possible. And then him getting out of Cuba, we talked about how he got caught and went to jail and didn’t see his mom, and didn’t know how long he was going to be in jail because they don’t tell you over there: stuff I never knew. I’m mad at myself for having that altercation...”
Johnson paused, eyes reddening. His voice cracked.
“He changed me,” Johnson said. “I smile. Before, I was always intense and took the game as a job and had to make it, and had to stay in the big leagues, had to get the contract, had to be the guy. No: You don’t have to do anything. You made it, you got to the big leagues, you’re in the United States of America, got a beautiful family. The game is fun. He played the game how I played the game in Little League. That’s how everybody should be in the big leagues.”
Asked if he ever told Fernandez that, Johnson shook his head. “No,” he said, so softly that he had to repeat it. “But I’ll tell him one day.”
Read S.L. Price's full story on Jose Fernandez on SI.com or in the Oct. 10, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated.