Jose Fernandez's Passion, Love Are Lasting Inspirations to Those Left to CopeFebruary 13, 2017
All around them, there was beauty. So much beauty. Bright, blended colors and shapes, brushstrokes, lines that bent and etched and curved, strumming their emotions and reaching deep inside their hearts.
As they looked around the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Miami Marlins superstar Giancarlo Stanton and two of his traveling baseball buddies, veteran starter Ricky Nolasco and talented closer A.J. Ramos, soaked it in. Street art and murals, everywhere they looked, every corner they turned.
Their hearts were still so heavy. The searing memories were still so fresh. Stanton's boss, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, earned his fortune as an art dealer. Their deceased friend, ace pitcher Jose Fernandez, was an artist on the mound. Now on vacation in October in Brazil, the fourth consecutive offseason they've traveled overseas together, the three longtime friends looked at each other and hatched a plan.
"We saw all of the art," Ramos says. "And we thought this might be a good idea to show that Jose was with us. That he is always in our heart, even if he isn't present.
"Me and G were talking, and I can't remember if it was me or him who said it first: It would be really dope if we could paint something like that."
"We saw something like an angel, so we started throwing out ideas of stuff we could do like that," Nolasco says.
"We thought anyone could do it," Stanton says. "We didn't know you needed permission."
So as they journeyed from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro, now baseball artists in residence, they went to work. They enlisted the help of the local bodyguard they had hired while they were there to obtain both permission and an artist. They bounced ideas off of each other and discussed each of their visions.
What best describes Jose? How do we capture his spirit? The clock was ticking. Vacations don't last forever. Upon arrival in Rio de Janeiro, by the time permission and artist were secured, their art not only needed to fit onto a wall, but the burst of creativity also needed to fit into a two-and-a-half to three-hour space before they had to move on.
"We started with a concept and notes," Stanton says. "What pieces and what tidbits should we include?"
"His passion, man, his passion," Ramos says. "His passion for the game. His passion for life. He lived, man. He lived. There were some hard times, but he lived.
"Sometimes hard times change you into a cold person. Not him. He'd always say, 'You don't know freedom. You were born into it. You've had it your whole life. How do you know what you have if you've never had it or lost it? He never had it, so he enjoyed it much more.
"It's like the way it is with clothes. Clothes are normal, but when you're naked you realize how important clothes are—not even what they look like, but, 'I'm cold, I just want clothes.'"
Three times, Fernandez had attempted to defect from Cuba. On his fourth try, when he was 15 in 2008, he finally was successful. During that trip, he once said, an enormous wave washed someone on his small boat overboard, and he leaped into the ocean to save that person. When he did, he discovered he had saved his mother.
Now, he was gone, having perished in an overnight boating accident in Miami in late September, in the same waters that carried him to his beloved freedom. For a grieving organization, the tears still haven't dried. And the foundation piece of that organization, the quiet slugger who so gracefully stepped up and commanded the broken hearts and lost souls in the immediate aftermath, continues his mission to carry forward the spirit of a pitcher nobody in Miami will ever forget.
"People have to understand what he meant to a community, to his country, to our team and to the sport," Stanton says slowly. "Sometimes someone has success, and you glorify that part of it. You see on TV pictures of all the personality, but I don't think that his full potential got out, the potential like we saw in him.
"I just think he deserves that."
It has taken a full six weeks of back-and-forth with Stanton, through his agent, to arrange what becomes an emotional and moving 45-minute talk. He is a man who takes full advantage of his offseasons, traveling both the world and the country. He apologizes for the lengthy pursuit that led to this interview, saying a lot of the delay was due to the fact that he was "bouncing around." But, he concedes, there is another reason he stayed elusive.
"You've got to be in the mood to talk about something like this," he says quietly. "You've got to prepare.
"Those are terrible memories. Awful."
THERE IS STRENGTH IN friendship. As the Miami Marlins pitchers and catchers report to camp for their first workout Tuesday, they will trade the usual spring greetings, wrap each other in hugs, catch up on offseason news and bask in the boundless warmth and possibilities that come packaged with a new season.
Time has its way of softening things, even if not making them easier, though this fresh start will carry with it the deep scars of what's past. Like the nearby Atlantic Ocean, they expect the emotions and memories to come at them in waves, all unpredictable, some big enough to be threatening, others small enough to remind them of their own inner strength and balance.
"It will be a few waves of another reality the first few days of camp," Stanton says. "We'll take it head on. We already did something as hard as you can do, playing again right after it happened.
"Now, he won't be there at FanFest. He won't be there at spring training. He won't be there on Opening Day. We built a great strength during all of this. We'll come together, and it will be much easier during the next wave, and during the waves that come during the season."
Exactly what will produce these waves of emotion, and when, there is no way of telling. Just five days before Stanton and I speak, another young ace, Kansas City's Yordano Ventura, was killed in an automobile accident in the Dominican Republic. Digesting that news yanked Stanton right back to last September.
"I thought of that, and I thought of Oscar Taveras as well," Stanton says of the late St. Louis Cardinals outfielder who also was killed in a car accident in the Dominican, in 2014. "I thought of the fact of how they were the same thing—similar, yet different. And how unbelievable and crazy it is.
"Life is very interesting."
To Stanton, leadership has never come naturally. He is quiet by nature, more of a do-as-I-do, not do-as-I-say guy. Also, he is the kind of big-bat player who is susceptible to leadership being forced on him prematurely because, really, when you blast 34 home runs in your first full major league season at age 21, as he did in 2011, suddenly, you have people's attention. And from the outside, it is so easy to be seduced by that power and simply assume: Big muscles equal leadership skills. What folks don't always realize is that, sometimes, a man needs to be afforded time to grow into his shoes. Even with a $325 million contract, which Stanton signed in November 2014.
The tragedy of last September forced a lot of Marlins into uncomfortable, unwanted spaces. Life has a way of doing that to all of us, eventually. Each circumstance is different, but there are universal truths that are unavoidable. Heartbreak and shock are a couple of them.
When those emotions hit Miami late last season, the Marlins suddenly were on a bus together to pay a visit to Fernandez's inconsolable mother and grandmother. When a void in the epically sad pregame ceremony before their first game back against the New York Mets appeared and Stanton recognized that somebody needed to step up and say a few words…these are moments for which there is no script.
"You know, a lot of guys on the team and around the team said that's the first time they've really seen Giancarlo step forward in a team-type setting," says Don Mattingly, who was finishing his first season managing the Marlins when Fernandez died, shaking this organization to its core.
"I think the team in general was kind of hanging on [veteran third baseman] Martin Prado. Martin's the guy we kind of called the Captain, but I think during that process we saw Giancarlo step up and come out of his shell a little bit. Because he's a quiet guy, and he's a private guy. And that's fine, but as a leader on our club, sometimes you've got to express yourself.
"And that was a moment we saw that was different than any other."
"I saw it," says Scott Boras, who, as Fernandez's representative, leaned through his own tears into a microphone to deliver an achingly eloquent eulogy at the funeral. "I absolutely saw Giancarlo before the game, after the game, what he had done. Yes. Yes, it was leadership at the most difficult time.
"I learned a great deal about him, and I have the highest amount of respect and praise. And it has nothing to do with him as a baseball player, but who he is as a man and what he felt needed to be done by his team for a player he had high regard for."
At a moment Stanton didn't ask for and in a situation he never expected to face, Stanton was touched by grace.
"I appreciate [the praise from Mattingly and Boras] a lot," Stanton says. "I was having a very hard time. I was struggling, too. I didn't plan the pregame speech; I just saw what was going on and that someone needed to say something.
"It was one of those moments where you don't think, you act. I don't even remember everything I said. I knew we needed to be picked up even though I was down. I knew I had to say something even if I didn't know what to say.
"I knew it would mean a lot because it was from the heart."
He located his words as the Marlins, concluding the pregame ceremony on Sept. 26, all wearing identical "Fernandez 16" jerseys, gathered on the mound in what became a sort of cathartic group hug. That's when Stanton recognized the need for somebody to say something, and these are the words he found and offered to his teammates: "We'll all come together and help each other out. We're going to do this somehow. Just put your hand on somebody, and if somebody is struggling, pick them up. And we're going to find a way to do this. I love all you guys."
THERE ARE MOMENTS THAT land with a thud and sicken you for the rest of your life. The boat carrying Fernandez and two friends crashed in the early-morning hours on Sunday, Sept. 25, and by daybreak all of the gory details were being dispersed.
"I live with A.J. in Miami, and he came up to my room, which he never does," Stanton says. He can still hear the urgency.
"I thought we missed the game," Stanton says. "It's hard to wake up early after a bunch of night games. You have to put on your alarm. I thought we were going to miss the game, and then he said his agent had called.
"It was unbelievable. What do we do? We looked on the Internet and got a bunch of confirmations, and then we just said, 'OK, let's go to the field and regroup from there.'"
At his home, Mattingly's phone rang at 6, 6:15 a.m. It was Michael Hill, the club's president of baseball operations, with David Samson, the Marlins' president, also on the line.
"Michael didn't sugarcoat it," Mattingly says. "He just said, 'Jose Fernandez has been killed in a boating accident.' I was like, 'Aw, man, no way.' And from there, it became a blur."
Nolasco, who plays for the Angels, was in Houston preparing for that afternoon's game against the Astros when he heard the news. He played in Miami from 2006-2013, and when Fernandez first appeared in big league camp as a teenager a couple of springs before his 2013 debut, it was Nolasco who quickly took the phenom under his wing.
"Ricky was one of the few people Jose would listen to," Ramos says. "He was a veteran, and he showed Jose what was good and what was bad. Jose really respected him."
Now, Nolasco woke up in Houston to the text from a friend, sharing the awful news.
"I thought it was fake, to be honest with you," Nolasco says. "First thing I thought was, There's no way. It was all over the clubhouse TVs. I couldn't watch. I just left the room."
In Southern California, Boras was awakened by an urgent text from Alex Morin, his man in Miami, around 3:30 a.m. Pacific time. It was a call eerily similar in time to the one he received when Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed in a car accident in April 2009. Like Fernandez, Boras represented Adenhart, and that call came around 3:30 a.m., too. Adenhart was 22. Fernandez was 24.
"You're numb," Boras says. "You fly in to see Jose's mother, and that did it for me. He was her life. Everything [was organized] around Jose. And his grandmother, his abuela. Her home was like a shrine. She kept everything, awards, what he had done; they had a very close relationship.
"I was supposed to be his lawyer and take care of everything, and when I saw her, I just broke down."
The Marlins bused over to his mother's house as a team, and to this day, the horrific sounds from that house still echo.
"That's really the one thing that sticks out in my mind and in my heart," Mattingly says. "I can see and feel those sounds. It was just pain. It was pain coming out of her, uncontrollable pain. It was just so sad. Aaaahhhhh."
"I know that sound," Boras says. "I had been there early that day. Jose's mother and I went back to her bedroom. I believe the priest was there. We talked, and I had to tell her about what benefits he had, what protections he had from union policies. There were a number of things we had to do because his girlfriend was pregnant; we had to discuss how that was going to be handled, trusts that needed to be developed for the baby. She had a lot of questions. Then she'd revert back to the emotions."
After the cancellation of Sunday afternoon's game against Atlanta came the resumption of play on Monday against the Mets, Stanton's heartfelt pregame message to his teammates and then, memorably, little Dee Gordon slamming the longest home run of his career to lead off the game and rounding the bases while crying.
"Jose would always tell me," Boras says. "'In the locker room, I drive my teammates nuts. I don't know why they talk to me. I'm just hyper, tough to deal with. They want me to calm down, but they're my people and I've gotta ask them a million things. I constantly bother them. I know they love me when I pitch and they put up with me on days I don't.' I said, 'Hey, just be you. Every now and then, ask them what music they like and play their music. That way they know you're a partner. That way you can stay close to them.'
"I didn't know Dee Gordon at all. I got to the ballpark and had other guys on the team, like Ozo [Marcell Ozuna], and I just wanted to see how they were doing. They have that area behind home plate, and I got there and I just lost it. You don't know [how you're going to react].
"Christian Yelich is from Southern California, and he played travel ball with my son, Trent, and I don't represent Yelich, but he comes up to me and grabs me and says, 'Hey, man, I'm here.' Dee Gordon comes up and puts his arms around me and says, 'I'm there with you, I'm there with you.' It was really touching.
"It's just a shocking thing, and you still have the memory of his mother in your mind. That sound, a mother's loss. It's still hard."
Three days later, eulogizing Fernandez, Boras said: "That smile. Oh, that smile. … This game, these relationships are ... so wonderful ... Every time he greeted you, that smile hit you. It was the window of his soul. Oh, he had unbelievable ability, but that smile opened the door to him. The beacon of light. … Jose, your smile is eternal. It's forever."
Boras went on to summarize the proudest moments of Fernandez's life: "He called and he said, 'I bought my mother a house.' He wept. 'Can you believe it?' he said. 'I'm this little Cuban boy, and I bought my mother a home in the United States of America.' When he became a citizen, [he] called me, elated ... He screamed from the phone, 'Free like you!' I said, 'No, you're different. You're so different. I was born with the privilege of this great country. You had to fight and risk your life to get here. You should be so proud.' He said, 'The United States is heaven on earth.'"
THESE ARE THE THREADS that will always stitch them together. The scenery changes, the calendar pages flip, and many more steps down the road, it comes time to step forward, however tentatively.
"It's tough, because you've got to move on," says Mattingly, whose managing of people, not X's and O's, will be leaned on early this spring. "We were so close to it at the end of the season there; it was so heavy, you couldn't do anything but think about that.
"I think as guys get away a little bit, they'll definitely look back at that time and draw something from it, but it's hard for us to even think about talking about Jose. You're not going to fill that role. As a team, you're not really talking about filling that role. It's just knowing we've gotta move on.
"I feel our club was pretty close before that, and it seems like during that these guys just bonded. So we'll see what that does."
While the Ventura and Taveras deaths were wrenching tragedies in their own right, both the Royals and the Cardinals were at home for the winter when those occurred, so the players were able to grieve in private. One thing Stanton vividly recalls about the hours following the death of Miami's ace was that everywhere the players turned, there was a television camera or another reporter. You deal with what's before you, you have no choice. But under those circumstances, everything magnified to even greater degrees, Stanton thinks the Marlins pulled together even tighter than maybe they would have otherwise, and that those bonds will pull them closer yet in 2017.
"There's no question," he says. "You get 25 big leaguers, 50 men [including other organizational people] all crying in a room, hugging each other, it doesn't matter if baseball is involved, you pull closer. Those are terrible memories, but you'll always know what went on and what made you feel better at that time."
From there, in Stanton's opinion, the foundation only strengthens.
"Everyone is going to be clean-slated," Stanton says. "Getting through this first little bit of spring training, realizing he's not with us again, that's going to be tough. And then we'll be OK."
Another bit of unsettling news came during the offseason, of course, when the toxicology reports were finished and the autopsy revealed Fernandez had both alcohol and cocaine in his system at the time of the accident. Investigators concluded that it was unclear who was driving the boat, and Fernandez allegedly was fighting with his pregnant girlfriend at the time.
"That's reality," Stanton says. "I knew he was upset, and he was asking for people to go out and hang out [after the Marlins' Saturday night game]. But we had a day game the next day and none of us was up for that.
"I figured he was drinking that night. I didn't know if he was, but obviously when you put two and two together…"
Mattingly's reaction to the cocaine?
"I was disappointed when I heard that," he says. "But my next thought was, It doesn't change anything regarding how I feel about Jose. He was a young kid, and obviously they were drinking that night, and we know guys who are out drinking and doing those kind of things.
"In my heart, I don't think [cocaine] was a common thing with him because I'd never seen him change. There were no differences in his personality from one day to the next or highs and lows or anything like that. I've been around some of that kind of stuff and seen differences and changes in people. I'm hoping it was a one-off type situation, and it was disappointing, but it doesn't change anything about the way I feel about Jose."
Fernandez dominated what turned out to be his final game against Washington, throwing eight shutout innings while striking out 12 and walking none. But in his first season back from Tommy John ligament transfer surgery, the Marlins were conserving his innings. Given that and his max effort against the Nationals, they agreed with Fernandez to push his next start back by one day to give him extra rest.
Had he been scheduled to start that Sunday game, as originally planned, he likely never would have stepped from the bars onto the boat late Saturday night. But he was, and he did.
"He was so good," Mattingly says. "It was the best game I'd seen him pitch. I remember telling him, and I still have the photo of us talking.
"He used his changeup; we'd been talking about it with him all year long. That day, he was calm. He used his pitches, and he wasn't crazy emotional. It was a really focused outing."
Boras, too, remembers Fernandez's performance against the Nationals, and the final conversations he had with his ace just before and after that game. The Nats had nicked up Fernandez in his previous outing against them, and he told Boras no way was that happening again.
"I told him, 'You're going to trust your ability not to overthrow, not to allow your emotions to overtake you. You're going to be a ballerina, not a wrestler. That's the goal,'" Boras says.
"He calls me afterward and says, 'I'm not wearing one of those funny dresses, but I sure liked that ballerina thing.' He said, 'Thanks, man, that really helped me.' Those are the last words he said to me, words of thanks."
THERE IS A LASTING beauty in art. It becomes breathtaking in so many forms, from a framed Cezanne to a moving symphony, from a rousing rock concert to a hip-hop graffiti wall, from an artist with oils and a brush to a pitcher with gifts on the mound. So much beauty. So many hard edges in this world that art helps soften and reshape.
Nolasco, who calls Fernandez "the best I've ever witnessed," looked at some of that street art in Brazil and saw his angel. When they got to Rio, they saw the famed Christ the Redeemer statue with his arms open. These baseball artists-in-residence now were brimming with ideas, and Ramos saw that statue and envisioned a mural with Jesus with his arms open, and a Fernandez jersey, No. 16, floating toward him.
"Like he was going up to God," Ramos says.
But it was simply too elaborate for the time constraints they were under. So from the pieces and tidbits they had noted, the friends discussed with their artist, Tito na Rua, the word "Nino," or, child, something that Stanton and Ramos started calling Fernandez almost immediately when he broke into the majors at age 20.
"He'd be funny, and he'd say dumb things all the time," Ramos says. "I said, 'You're like a little kid, a nino.'"
They chose a baseball for the graffiti mural, of course. And a bat with the Spanish word "Saudades," which, loosely translated, means "badly missing someone who has passed away." They included Fernandez's jersey number, 16. And they helped with the painting. They autographed the mural. And the artist imagined the final touch, making it a water scene, painting waves underneath that beautiful and innocent word, "Nino."
The Instagrams went worldwide, from Miami to the next stop on their itinerary, Amsterdam. It was there that the two DJs who have become friends with Stanton, Ramos and Nolasco—Sunnery James, the one married to Victoria's Secret model Doutzen Kroes, and Ryan Marciano—honored Fernandez in one of their sets, flashing Fernandez's picture and his date of birth and telling everyone in the club, "We miss him."
Oh, is Fernandez missed, from inside the Marlins clubhouse to points beyond. The pitcher who served as such a symbol of hope and inspiration for Miami's enormous Cuban population now must inspire in a different way.
So much is evolving every day, in the Marlins, in Stanton, in what must be done to move forward while honoring the past. Fernandez's girlfriend is due in February, and the Marlins hope to maintain a relationship with mother and baby even as they continue to figure out how to fill the void both on the field and in their hearts. The grief counselors and psychologists who were on call have receded, but the way some of the Marlins opened their hearts remains. In the immediate aftermath of Ventura's death, Royals general manager Dayton Moore phoned Hill for advice, because in their raw time of shock and grief, the Marlins were universally applauded for handling their tragedy with grace.
What Mattingly told them during that time undoubtedly will remain true this spring.
"I just tried to say that I really don't know what to say, but one of the things was, 'I'm glad I'm here with you guys,'" the manager says. "There are times in your life when you're put in positions and you're at certain places at certain times for a reason. I felt that way about that, that I was there for a reason.
"And in that light, there was no other place I would have rather been than there. Because I felt like I was supposed to be there."
From the debris of a life gone too soon, from one last reckless evening, what lasts is Fernandez's smile, and the exuberance with which he embraced that still relatively new freedom.
"I think these guys take a joy from Jose," Mattingly says. "I think it's one thing they thought about after the fact. Because Jose could drive you a little crazy, right? He could do some stuff that would irritate the other team, he'd do something where even on your own team you were like, 'Oh, c'mon, Jose.'
"But there was a joy inside him when he played in the way he went about it and the way he was with people that was so fresh. Because it was real, and you just loved that energy he had. It was real, and it drew you in. I think that's one thing we'll take from Jose was that joy he played with and the love he had and the passion he had for the game and for people."
Says Ramos: "It changed all of us. I'm glad I was able to tell Jose the words, 'I love you' in person. Because he told people all the time, 'I love you.' He really was giving with his love, and since that day we've all been more that way.
"If we could just give a tenth of what Jose gave, the world would be a better place. It's something you always knew, but it was instilled in you. This kid was amazing."
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.