- Miami's ace was killed in a boating accident last September, depriving the world of a talent that was expected to be on display when baseball's best gathers in South Florida tonight.
When the National League All-Stars are introduced before Tuesday night’s game in Miami, there will be one man notably absent. The camera and public address announcer won’t pause between Cubs closer Wade Davis and Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, but it will feel like they should have. That’s where, had everything gone to plan, Jose Fernandez would have stood and likely basked in one of the loudest roars a Midsummer Classic crowd could give to a player.
Fernandez won’t be there because the plan went sickeningly awry. He died at age 24 last September, when the baseball world stopped and mourned and and struggled to understand. On Sept. 26, one day after a boat Fernandez was piloting crashed against the rocks in the pre-dawn darkness in waters off Miami, the Marlins beat the Mets in a home game that was essentially a funeral, one punctuated by Dee Gordon’s leadoff home run that reduced him and everyone watching to tears. One of the brightest young talents in sports had been taken away so suddenly that it felt like a cruel joke. It felt even more painful when a subsequent report by local authorities found that Fernandez was speeding and was legally drunk with traces of cocaine in his system at the time of the accident.
When the Marlins were announced as the host for the 2017 All-Star Game two years ago, it was easy to imagine that with the honor would come a showcase for two of MLB’s best: Fernandez and outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. The supremely talented Stanton had, just a few months before Miami was awarded the game, signed a 10-year, $325 million deal to remain in south Florida. Fernandez, the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year, was on his way back from Tommy John surgery, but that figured to be a mere bump in the road for someone as good as he was. Their names would be in lights and splashed on billboards and all across television and social media. They were the future not just of the Marlins but also of the entire sport. That would be their week.
Two years later, Stanton remains, but Fernandez is gone, and the hole he leaves is impossible to fill. His name remains everywhere: on the backs of jerseys and shirts of people throughout South Florida, and on the memorial outside Marlins Park that is covered in messages of love and grief from his teammates and fans and the citizens of Miami. It will be heard before the game, when the team will hold a tribute for him. And it will be on the minds of everyone watching, especially when Nationals ace Max Scherzer takes the mound to make the start that, in the dreams of so many, would have been Fernandez’s.
This was to be Fernandez’s time to shine in front of the national audience that only got to see him in bits and pieces playing for a team that always seemed so far from relevance. The game would have been a showcase for his electric stuff, his power fastball and looping curveball, and for his huge smile and big personality. It's not just watching his performances that we miss; it’s seeing how he carried himself as he did it, all laughter and swagger. He admired his home runs and fist-pumped after his strikeouts and knew that, on his best day, no one could touch him. And as baseball moves into its next era, one featuring so many other great young stars who will take the field on Tuesday, he was poised to be one of the men who could change the way the game was played.
This year’s All-Star Game is the first since 2002 that is just a simple exhibition contest, as home-field advantage in the World Series is no longer at stake. The culture of baseball will never allow the game to be as free as that of other sports—the NBA's All-Star Game remains the gold standard for star relaxation—but this year would have been that golden opportunity for those young players to let loose with their emotions and just have fun. You know Fernandez would have been front and center in that effort, too, his gregarious nature so infectious and his skill so obvious that they would have brought instant levity to what is sometimes a dull affair. Fernandez could liven up any game; if he could make late-season Marlins games must-watch, what could he have done against the best of the best on a giant national stage?
The world got two All-Star Game appearances out of Fernandez. The first came back in 2013, en route to his third-place finish in the NL Cy Young voting, when the then-20-year-old phenom came to New York and threw a perfect inning of relief at Citi Field, striking out Dustin Pedroia and Chris Davis and getting Miguel Cabrera to pop out. The final time was last year, when he came on at San Diego's Petco Park in relief of starter Johnny Cueto and struck out the world's best player, Mike Trout, before giving up a run on a pair of hits and a walk. The real fireworks, surely, would come this season, in his home park, with his fans and his family and his team all there behind him. That would be Jose Fernandez’s night.
In many ways, Tuesday will still be Fernandez’s night, but not in the way anyone there wanted. He will be remembered like he was last September, and tears will be shed and his talent will be memorialized, and we will all wish that we could undo the moment he climbed into his boat and drove off to his doom. Fernandez will always be a part of baseball’s story, even when he isn’t there. But his story was robbed of its All-Star chapter, as well as its happy ending.