By Joe Smeltzer
It was past 1 a.m. on Sunday morning, and I was very agitated. I had a lot of stuff to get done over the weekend and had not done any of it.
For whatever reason, I decided to take a midnight trip to Walmart with my friends from Waynesburg University. I got back to my dorm at 1:30 a.m. and fell asleep at 2:20 a.m. – about 40 minutes before the sports world would lose one of its favorite figures and best humans.
When I checked Twitter in the morning, I saw that Jose Fernandez, the superb Miami Marlins hurler, had died at the age of 24. I went numb for a few seconds, then picked myself up enough to read into how he had passed away.
It turns out that Fernandez was on a boat. The boat crashed, killing Fernandez and two other passengers. As much as I and the rest of the baseball community wanted to believe that this was just a Paul McCartney-like death hoax, it was all too real. Jose Fernandez was gone.
It’s amazing to think how the loss of somebody you have never met, or even been within 100 feet of, can have such an impact. But even though I never knew Fernandez and was never a fan of the Miami Marlins, this news shook me up, as it did to many who love baseeball.
Next to Clayton Kershaw, Fernandez was the most dominant pitcher in the National League. But his appeal wasn’t only that he mowed batters down at such a high rate, but, perhaps more importantly, in the way in which he went about his business.
So often, baseball players and professional athletes, in general, have a button-down attitude towards their sport. Fernandez was the opposite.
When you watch Jose Fernandez, you were watching a 12-year old kid who just so happened to be making a lot of money. He was lively. He was happy. He made baseball look like fun.
From they day he debuted in the majors on April 7, 2013, Fernandez was a star. He was the National Leagues Rookie of the Year in 2013, going 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA and a 0.979 WHIP. His next two seasons were cut short by Tommy John Surgery, but come 2016, Fernandez was back and ready to go.
What a glorious year it was. At the time of his death, Fernandez had a 16-8 record with a 2.86 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and a league-leading 253 Strikeouts. At 24, Jose was already one of the game’s best pitchers and its most exciting.
Fast forward about 13 hours and I find that one of Pittsburgh’s most prominent sports figures, Arnold Palmer, died.
While the loss of Palmer was not nearly as much of a shock as losing Fernandez was, as Palmer was 63 years his senior, we still lost one of the most important figures in the history of golf. It’s hard to explain Palmer’s influence, as when he burst onto the scene, I was not alive yet.
But the common understanding is that Palmer was golf’s first superstar. Arnie had everything. Not only was he the best in the world, he also had “the look.” He was charismatic and is understood to have been a wonderful person to be around.
Palmer’s 7 major championships and 62 PGA Tour wins speak for themselves, as does, of course, the signature drink named in his honor. There’s not a lot that I can say for Arnold Palmer that someone else hasn’t said already. He was a superstar. He was an icon. His likeness will not be replicated
In Palmer and Fernandez, we have two opposite, yet similar occurrences. One was a young man with his whole life ahead of him, who never even got to scratch the surface of his potential, both on the diamond and in the world. The other did all he needed to do in sports and life, and his death was just the final curtain of a magnificent journey. As different as those two descriptions make these men sound, they are so similar.
Both of these men had a genuine love for their profession. Both men were beloved by the fans who watched them, as well as the folks who knew them best. The losses of both Fernandez and Palmer are devastating to the sports community. As beautiful as following sports can be, moments like this make it so hard to do.
2016 was already a tough year as far as losing sporting legends. Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, Pat Summit, Buddy Ryan and Dennis Green (not to mention pop culture heroes Prince and David Bowie) are just some of the notable figures that have left us. But 9/25/16 took the sorrow to a whole other level.
It will go down as one of the darkest days in sports history. But if there is a silver lining, I think it’s that situations like this remind us of why we love sports. I’ve heard countless times that baseball doesn’t have the magic that it did back when Aaron, Mantle and Mays were in their heyday and that belief has substance in a lot of cases. But then the Marlins played their first game since Fernandez’s death on Monday.
If you haven’t yet seen Dee Gordon’s first at bat after the death of his dear friend, then you better watch it. It was something that would be thought of as too corny if it appeared in a Hollywood flick.
Gordon was the first Marlins batter of the game, and he faced off against Bartolo Colon. In honor of his fallen comrade, Gordon started out by batting right handed as opposed to his usual left handed, because Fernandez was a righty. although Gordon would eventually switch back. Not known to be a home run hitter by any means, Gordan came into the game with no homers on the season. Then, on the 2-0 offering, bang.
And Arnold Palmer? I’ll just leave you this picture taken over his statue in Latrobe.
|Photo credit: pittsburgh.cbslocal.com|