When a player is taken from us too soon, all we usually have is the image we’ve built of that player in our heads. About 99 percent of that, if not 100, will do with whatever he did in various baseball games. You have to force yourself to remember that the real devastation isn’t something you’ll ever see — that there was a life, a family, a soul behind the laundry that brought him into your world. The distance and unfamiliarity makes the mourning abstract, but you do what you can.
It’s not enough to mourn the loss of a star pitcher just because he threw the ball really hard. You know that instinctively. It’s not enough to lament the loss of fastballs past, the golden arm. Because you know that every single major league player is more than a collection of moving parts designed to manipulate baseballs in a way that entertains you. And there’s a part of you that knows the sentence, "There will never be someone who throws like that again" is a lie because there will be. Maybe as soon as next year. There will be more 97-mph fastballs mixed with brilliant sliders, and we will celebrate those pitchers, and after those pitchers leave, there will be more pitchers behind them.
Jose Fernandez was not someone you had to remind yourself to humanize. He was not a player you had reduced to an on-field construct because that’s just how we have to compartmentalize everything. No, no, goodness no. He was so radiant that when he’s ripped away, you almost have to force yourself to remember the talent. How well he played the sport is the afterthought because all you can think about at first is the joy.
My god, the joy.
My favorite highlight of his has absolutely nothing to do with how he played baseball.
That’s Fernandez watching Giancarlo Stanton from 40 feet away and being as excited to be there as any of us will be about anything. Most players make you think things like, "Gee, I wish I could throw a curveball like that," but Fernandez was the only one who made you think, "I hope I’m that excited about life one of these days." When he snatches the comebacker from Troy Tulowitzki, when he stares in unfettered wonder at his first home run.
When he’s in the middle of a bench-clearing brawl started because he expressed his boundless joy in an inappropriate manner:
Joy. He lived to be happy, and it poured out of your TV or computer or phone, unless you were lucky enough to be there and have it pour into the stands. If Fernandez were around in 1922, the joy would have crackled over the airwaves, and even though it would have been possible to never see moving pictures of him pitching, the joy would have been a virus that infected the announcer, and it would have been passed to you, even if the exact word "joy" wasn’t uttered once. You would have known. It would have been impossible not to.
Fernandez wasn’t just a fastball/slider combination because we also knew where he came from and how he got here.
After the splash, he heard the screams. A wave had crashed over the boat’s deck and swept Fernandez’s mother out to sea. He saw her body and before he had time to think, he jumped in. A spotlight shone on the water, and Fernandez could make out his mother thrashing in the waves about 60 feet from the boat.
We saw the joy spill over into real life, the stuff that matters, when he was reunited with his grandmother after years and years away.
The joy made perfect sense, then. Fernandez played baseball like someone who didn’t want to be anywhere else, probably because he didn’t want to be anywhere else. We grow up hearing stories of Ernie Banks, Mr. Baseball, saying "Let’s play two" because he loved the sport so much, and we’re still talking about it decades later because it’s a beautiful image, a feeling that can complete every sentence about why we love baseball.
Fernandez had the let’s-play-two smile, then. It’s why it made sense to discuss his injury in 2014 in the context of the five stages of grief. There was going to be a happy ending at the end of the bad news, though, and we were just confusing grief with impatience.
Baseball is still worth watching without Fernandez, but the best reason to watch is gone. I can wait, though. I can wait right here.
And we waited, we waited right there, and Fernandez came back as good as ever. As electric and effervescent as ever. As joyful as ever.
We can’t wait this one out. Jose Fernandez is gone, and there’s a dark, dark void, an absence of joy. I didn’t know him, didn’t know his favorite movies, didn’t know how he laughed at them. Didn’t know if he slurped his coffee or if he even drank coffee. All I know was that he was one of the most beautiful personalities I’ve ever watched in this sport. There wasn’t another player who reminded us of just how fun it was to be here, in which "here" could be defined as watching a specific baseball game, just as easily as it could be defined as being alive at all.
He was a constant reminder of just how fun everything can be. Now he’s an eternal reminder of how that’s always just on loan, and how we'll always be reduced to remembering it in the past tense, happy it existed at all. Rest in peace, Jose Fernandez. Rest in peace, and thank you for the joy.