NEW YORK — The crowd around Yoenis Cespedes’s locker grew larger with each passing minute, with cameramen jostling reporters amid the jumble of bags and suitcases being packed postgame. There is nothing unusual about that scene after a Mets game; Cespedes has regularly been the center of attention since he came to New York. But on a chilly Sunday afternoon in Queens—the day of the Mets’ final regular-season home game of the year—Cespedes wasn’t facing questions about at-bats or pitching matchups. As the Cuban superstar finished getting dressed and drew himself up before the assembled media, what everyone wanted to talk about was his countrymate, Jose Fernandez, the Marlins pitcher whom Cespedes would never again face.
“It was a very difficult game,” Cespedes said. “The loss of Fernandez is very tough. We didn’t know him very well, but we knew he was a very charismatic person and we knew how much the game meant to him.”
Across a somber Citi Field clubhouse, the Mets’ 17–0 win over the Phillies seemed like an afterthought. As players silently gathered their belongings, the death of Fernandez—who was killed in a boating accident late Sunday night in Miami—hung over the room, even though no Mets player could claim to have known him all that well. Instead, they talked about what they would remember and what they liked about Fernandez: his talent, his presence and his inescapable love of the game.
“He was a tremendous person. He loved to compete,” said Asdrubal Cabrera. “There are no words to express the pain I feel.”
Word of Fernandez’s death filtered through the Mets’ clubhouse before their game against Philadelphia, prompting shock and sadness from both the players and from manager Terry Collins.
“This is one that hits you in the stomach,” he said. “This kid’s 24 years old. He’s got a huge future ahead of him ... He’s going to be missed. He’s one of the people that bring people into the ballpark, because they loved to see him play and they love to see him perform.”
“I don’t think anybody really brought more energy out there to the field,” said Jacob deGrom. “Even when he was in the dugout, you’d look over there and he’d be rooting on his team, probably more than anyone you’ve ever seen.”
It was at Citi Field where Fernandez first made his mark upon the game, when he took the mound on April 7, 2013, at the tender age of 20 for his major league debut. In five innings, he allowed just one run and struck out eight—an early glimpse of the otherworldly ability he had with a ball in his hand. He returned to New York that July for the All-Star Game, when he threw a perfect inning in relief for the National League and spent the day collecting signatures from his teammates on a pristine white Marlins jersey—one of the game’s prodigies reduced to a boy among legends. Collins remembers how nice Fernandez was to the Citi Field staff that week. Three years later, Fernandez started the All-Star Game for the NL in San Diego, and he took the time to thank Collins, who was managing the Senior Circuit, for letting him pitch.
“Everybody loved him,” Collins said. “He loved to be out there, and it was his stage. I wish more guys were like that and more guys really had fun like he did playing the game.”
Fernandez frustrated the Mets time and again: In his career, he faced them eight times and gave up just seven runs in 47 innings, striking out 59, and his was a name the team would always circle on its schedule. “He was the kind of pitcher where we’d say, ‘Fernandez is pitching today, we have to give our best because he’s going to give his best,’” Cabrera said. The Mets were set to face Fernandez again on Monday in Miami, as the Marlins had bumped him from his scheduled Sunday start against Atlanta to take on New York the next day in a critical wild-card race showdown. It was an unenviable assignment for the Mets; now, however, they will head to Florida focusing not on the best way to rattle Fernandez, but instead trying to process the inexplicable loss of one of baseball’s brightest young stars.
“Tomorrow is going to be a rough one for everybody,” Collins said after the game. “But I know Jose well enough to know that what he wants is the game played, and he wants the game played right.”
As the Mets’ clubhouse attendants packed up everyone’s gear and clothes for the flight to Miami, there was one additional and unexpected piece of equipment to take care of: a blue-and-white home Mets jersey, with FERNANDEZ 16 stitched on the back. It was the idea of team president Jeff Wilpon, who asked the clubhouse staff to make it, and it was Cespedes who took it out to the Mets’ dugout on Sunday and taped it to the wall. Before the game, as the Mets came out onto the field, each player tapped the jersey as a sign of respect, before both they and Phillies and the Citi Field crowd observed a moment of silence in honor of his passing. It was, Cespedes said, his teammates’ way of showing how much they would miss Fernandez, and the jersey will come with them to Marlins Park as a sign of solidarity with Miami.
After several minutes of questions about Fernandez’s life and career, Cespedes was asked if he had any special memories of the times he and his fellow Cuban—both of whom had risked their lives to come to the United States and play in the majors—had faced each other. “To me, Jose Fernandez was the best righthanded pitcher in baseball,” he replied. Then, as the reporters and cameramen drifted away from his locker, Cespedes sat down in silence and started to pack.