Sorrow for Fernandez Is Deeper Because the Joy Was Deeper

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Khalil Gibran

If you’ve been to many funerals, you’ve heard a lot of really nice things said about recently deceased friends and loved ones. In fact, you may have heard so many nice things said about flawed, imperfect people that you occasionally wondered if you showed up at the wrong funeral. But if you’re anything like me, you might walk out of every funeral with the same basic thought: “Man, I wish we were all better at telling and showing people how we feel before it’s too late.”

I thought of this yesterday, as I joined the rest of the baseball world in mourning the tragic death of Jose Fernandez. Every death is tragic in its own way; even an elderly person who has lived a full and fulfilling life leaves behind loved ones who have to carry on with a fresh void in their lives. But Fernandez’s death is a tragedy in so many ways. Purely from a baseball standpoint, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball and was very early on the path to a Hall of Fame career. It’s a path that many have fallen from as their careers progressed, but part of the tragedy is that we will never know.

On the personal level, Fernandez leaves behind a mother and grandmother with whom he shared a special bond, and a girlfriend who is carrying a baby who will never know his or her father. Throw in all the things Fernandez overcame to get to where he was — imprisoned in Cuba as a teenager for attempting to defect, saving his mother’s life when she fell overboard during their successful defection, etc. — and his death at such a young age just hits really hard.

But there is one thing we probably don’t need to regret here:

Photo Credit: Miami Marlins

Photo Credit: Miami Marlins

Unlike friends who die too soon and leave us wishing we had said how we feel, our collective love and admiration for Jose Fernandez has been open and clear from very early in his career. It was apparent from the get-go that he was a special talent, and when we realized just how much fun he had playing the game, we were smitten. If you’re ever in a bad mood, just go do a Google Image search for jose fernandez smile.

And when that exuberance got him in a little trouble, we always took his side. Even as Fernandez was knocking on the door of the Atlanta Braves clubhouse to apologize — unnecessarily — for admiring his first career home run, we on the internet had already named Chris Johnson and Brian McCann the “fun police,” and not in a good way.

Jose Fernandez loved playing the game of baseball, and we the fans loved watching him play. Sure, every once in a while he would give us an example to show our kids and warn them, “Be sure you don’t accidentally insult your opponents with your celebrations.” But for every one of those, he gave us a hundred examples to tell them, “Look at this grown man, recognizing and appreciating that he gets to have fun playing a game for a living!”

The juxtaposition between Fernandez’s buoyancy and other players’ grumpiness is striking. We as baseball fans sometimes have the urge to criticize a man acting like a child in an entirely positive sense — Hey, look, a balloon! Wow, I just hit a home run! Mom, can we ride the bumper cars again? Holy crap, my slider is so good it just struck out one of the best hitters in baseball! — while putting on a pedestal those who succumb to the very childish need to physically confront anyone who hurts their feelings.

I spent this weekend in Dodger Stadium, joining tens of thousands of my fellow Los Angeles Dodgers fans in saying goodbye to Vin Scully. Vin got a weekend planned for him to cap off an entire season that was devoted to celebrating his fantastic 67-year career. Vin will turn 89 in two months, and I was struck several times by just how lucky we were to get to say goodbye on his terms. (We never get to say goodbye to anyone on our terms, because we don’t want them to leave at all.)

After Saturday night’s game at Dodger Stadium, I hopped in my car and began the 10-hour drive to my home in Utah. I drove through the night, and when I stopped for gas one last time 50 miles from home, I decided to do a quick Twitter check. Sitting in my car at a gas station in rural Utah, I learned that Jose Fernandez had died in a boating accident. After crying more tears than I am comfortable admitting saying goodbye to an 88-year-old legend, I made the last hour of my drive home crying tears for a 24-year-old who will never have the chance to become a legend.

Jose Fernandez didn’t leave on our terms. He didn’t leave on his terms. He never got to hear us say goodbye to him. But as a baseball fan, I am thankful that he heard our “hellos” so many times and knew that we loved him. His family and friends are dealing with a real, personal loss, and nothing we feel can compare to that. But because he gave us more of a window into his personality than players usually do, we feel this more than we normally would. Even though it’s not true, we feel like we knew him.

So thank you, Jose, for letting us feel that. It really, really sucks to feel this bad right now, but that’s because it felt so good to watch you play.

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