José Fernández, Baseball & America
Baseball is the quintessential American game for many reasons. One of those reasons is that anybody can play it, so long as you can catch and throw a ball and swing a bat. We’re equals on the diamond; the umpire does not consider skin color and socio-economic class when calling balls and strikes, and outs. You don’t need to be tall like in basketball, nor learn a specialized position like in football. There’s a very low financial “barrier to entry.” If you can’t afford a wooden or metal bat, a real ball or gloves, search through your couch for change, go to a dollar store and buy a Wiffle bat and ball. If you don’t have an accessible ball field, find an open field or vacant lot. Baseball is not only America’s pastime, it is a democratized one.
José Fernández was signed by the Florida Marlins in 2011, and spent two years, like most young ball players, in the minors. In 2013 he became a starter for the Marlins, had an historic season, and was selected to represent the Marlins in the All Star Game, was named Rookie of the Year, and came in third for the Cy Young Award. His 2014 and 2015 seasons were shorted due to injuries, but he acquitted himself well when he did play.
This season, Fernández was again selected as an All Star. On September 20th, he announced his girlfriend was pregnant with his first child, then started a game in which he pitched eight shutout innings with 12 strikeouts.
On the morning of September 25th, his body, along with two others, was found near a boat that had crashed onto a jetty off Miami Beach.
There was a league-wide moment of silence and teams around the league paid tribute to Fernández.
“‘He was one of our game’s great young stars who made a dramatic impact on and off the field since his debut in 2013,’ Commissioner Rob Manfred said. ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, the Miami Marlins organization and all of the people he touched in his life.’”
On Monday September 26, when the Marlins hosted the Mets, before they played ball, both teams honored the fallen Marlins’ pitcher and then Marlins’ lead off batter Dee Gordon began the game by hammering a solo shot into deep right field.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the stadium, nor were mine as I watched. I’m a Mets fan, and my team lost, but Dee Gordon’s homer was one of those moments in baseball that remains legendary. I grew up in south Florida, but we didn’t get the Marlins until 1992. I’d been to Marlins games, and several of my classmates were of Cuban descent. I’ve always felt sorry for Cubans living under the boot heels of the Castro regime, and have written about America’s moral obligation to our neighbor to the south.
From Wikipedia: “José Fernández grew up in Santa Clara, Cuba…Ramón Jiménez, Fernández’s stepfather, defected from Cuba in 2005, settling in Tampa, Florida. Fernández attempted to defect unsuccessfully three times, with each failed defection attempt followed by a prison term. Fernández, along with his mother and sister, defected in 2007. On that successful attempt, José’s mother fell overboard when the boat hit turbulent waters, and José had to dive into the water to save her life. They reached Mexico, and then moved to Tampa in 2008.”
All families have stories they retell every so often. Some are just funny or sad stories about various family members, and some are about family members’ interactions with historical events. From Eliassen family lore is a latter type of story, relatable to the story of Fernández. Here it is, as told to me by my father by email:
“When the Mariel boatlift came along in, I think, May of 1980, I heard stories from friends in Key West that boats were selling at a premium. I also heard that boat owners who agreed to take Cuban Americans down there to pick up their relatives were making ungodly sums of money doing it. I briefly considered doing that which as it turned out would have been a big mistake. I figured such a trip would only take a few days. Instead I opted to trailer the boat back to Key West, hoping to sell it.
The scene in Key West harbor was chaotic with boats of every description being prepared to make the 90 mile crossing of the Florida Strait. It was like a Middle Eastern marketplace with small groups of men dickering loudly for passage or to buy a boat. I saw boats as small as 16′ with 55 gallon drums of gasoline in them. Late one evening I saw a man eyeing a boat identical to mine and determined he was in the market to buy something like it. I took him out to Key Haven where my boat was on the trailer. I had no concerns I was selling a dangerous boat as I had always found it to be reliable. John Allmands had a great reputation for being well built. He agreed to buy it immediately and gave me around $500. He said he had to go back to Miami to get the rest of the agreed price of $6500. He returned at about 3 a.m. and I can vividly remember him counting out the dough in denominations as small as $5. His name was Fulgiencio Padilla, and was known as Paddy. An immigrant himself, he had made a prosperous living owning several auto parts stores in the Miami area. The story was that he wanted to go to Cuba to get his father-in-law out of there and was panic stricken that Fidel would change his mind and close the doors again before he could get there. His wife was several months pregnant and the two of them were to make the trip.
At about 5 a.m. they left the dock of my friend in Key Haven, ignoring my plea to at least wait until daybreak. I got the following story after they returned:
They were about halfway there, so in the middle of the Florida Strait when a bad storm came in. We saw on the news that a number of small craft involved in the boat-lift sank with loss of life. The first thing to go wrong for Paddy was he lost steering on the flybridge. No problem, as he still had the helm from the cabin. Then the engine died. Now they were pitching in 10′ seas–very hazardous to say the least. His wife was seasick too. He decided to shoot off a flare with the flare gun I had on the boat, but just at the moment he pulled the trigger, the boat lurched and the round wound up going into the cabin, setting it afire. He was able to control the fire and eventually they were taken in tow by a Cuban fishing vessel, which made its way to Mariel. They remained there for 3 weeks while the boat was repaired for big bucks. Finally the old man was brought to the boat but Castro’s men insisted they also take several prisoners, or mental cases, I don’t remember which. This was virtually at gunpoint so they had no choice. On the way back they lost power again and were towed to somewhere in the Keys where the boat was confiscated by US Customs. They eventually got it back and even loaned it to your mother and I…
As a postscript, the father in law was killed by a hit and run driver about a year later. Also, Paddy was shot during a holdup of one of his stores, but survived.”
I looked for a quote from a Woody Allen movie to express how I feel about Fernández’s life and death. I considered this one from Annie Hall:
“There’s an old joke… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”
As well as this one from my favorite Allen movie, Love and Death:
“Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to go at five o’clock, but I have a smart lawyer. Got leniency.”
But they aren’t quite appropriate. They’re funny and applicable, and as much as I want to inject some levity, I know I need something more somber, something more…American.
So I settled for this one from Crimes and Misdemeanors:
“We’re all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale, most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly. Human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and even try to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.”
It’s easy to observe Fernández and decide that his death was senseless, that it is sad and forces all of us to consider our mortality. But if we dwell on the circumstances of his death, we run the risk of not paying enough attention to Fernández’s life, which represented much, much more than the trials and tribulations of just one man.
Fernández’s life was cut short by a pleasure boating accident. It’s ironic, since he survived a perilous trip at sea in defecting from Cuba to America, where he found life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is not guaranteed that in America you will find long life; 250 year old pieces of parchment can not guarantee accidents will not happen to cut short the life of a person who only wanted the freedom to pursue happiness.
Baseball is the quintessential American sport, and Fernández the quintessential American, a person who risked everything to live in freedom. His death is a tragedy, but his life is a testament to what this country still has to offer, that it remains a beacon to the poor and oppressed of the world.