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A fairy tale with the wrong ending: Remembering Marlin Jose Fernandez, 5 years later | Opinion

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 9/23/2021 Greg Cote, Miami Herald

The phone in David Samson’s dark house rang about 5:30 that Sunday morning. Michael Hill, the Miami Marlins’ director of baseball operations, was on the line.

“He sounded weird. Quiet and weird,” recalls Samson, then the team president. “Nothing good happens when he calls me at that hour. It means a player’s got arrested. I said, ‘Mike, what’s up? Are you OK?’ He said, ‘I have someone on the phone from Fish and Wildlife. There’s been an accident.’ ”

A Florida Fish and Wildlife officer, at the scene, said there had been a boating accident overnight, a crash into the jetty rocks off Government Cut.

“There’s been a death and we believe it is Jose Fernandez, your player,” the voice told Samson. “I said obviously that’s not right. It can’t be. I said prove it. Is there a tattoo of a bike chain [on his arm]?” There was a pause. It was checked. A minute or so later the voice returned:

“Yes, there is a tattoo of a bike chain.”

Thus began what Samson calls “a day of insanity.”

He finally got through to club owner Jeffrey Loria with the news.

Loria collapsed. “He screamed and hung up,” Samson recalls. “I know Jeffrey would never have sold the team if Jose hadn’t died.”

It was five years ago, on September 26, 2016, when the news broke across South Florida. Broke like a family’s irreplaceable heirloom.

The Dolphins would play their season’s home opener that afternoon, but a pall would hang over the stadium. There would be a jarring moment of silence.

That day’s Marlins game was canceled. The teammates Jose left behind gathered in the clubhouse, and wept. Dozens, then hundreds of people were gathering outside Marlins Park in a numb pilgrimage, many wearing his No. 16 jersey, some clutching flowers, all of them at a loss for what to do.

At a terrible loss.

“I saw the little boy in him,” manager Don Mattingly would say that day, fighting emotion. “The way kids play Little League, that’s the joy he played with.”

Giancarlo Stanton’s face glistened with tears as he said, “His joy lit up a stadium more than lights could.”

Tragedy seldom makes an appointment, or knocks politely. It invades, consumes and changes lives, ending some, and never quite leaving the ones left behind.

Jose Fernandez’s life ended at age 24 when his 32-foot boat he was driving, a craft named Kaught Looking, was speeding 65 mph and crashed into those sharp rocks, landing upside down. Two friends aboard with him, Emilio Jesus Macias and Eduardo Rivero, also were killed.

In a cruel turn of fate, Fernandez had been scheduled to pitch that Sunday but was given the day off at the insistence of agent Scott Boras. He never would have been in that boat, partying Saturday night, had he been pitching the following day.

A toxicology report found that Fernandez was legally drunk at the time of the accident and also had cocaine in his system, his legacy complicated, far from perfect.

A statue of Fernandez outside the stadium never happened, the plan killed after Jeffrey Loria sold the club to the current ownership group fronted by Derek Jeter. Today there is only a small plaque outside the stadium with the No. 16, years of birth and death, and a black ribbon.

“Jeter after the sale wanted nothing to do with Jose or with anything Jeffrey or I were interested in,” Samson says now. “They took down his locker, said no to the statue and erased his legacy from the Marlins. We had an artist chosen who was working on the [statue] cast. If I sound like you hit a nerve, you have.”

Adds Samson: “You shouldn’t run away from it, from [the controversy] of how it ended. It’s part of the story. But it’s not the whole story.”

Part of the story of Jose Fernandez is the greatness, the mystery of unrealized potential. The 38-17 record despite pitching on not-great teams. The staggering 29-2 mark pitching at home. The 2.58 ERA and 589 strikeouts in 471 innings. The two All-Star appearances.

Marlins Park hosted the 2017 All-Star Game the summer after the tragedy.

“I am starting for the National League in Marlins Park next July,” Fernandez had promised Samson just before he died.

He would still be only 29 today, in his prime.

The Marlins have spent five years trying to recover from the tragedy of his loss.

“How staggering his numbers were, and this was before the strikeout craze got completely out of control,” says ESPN baseball writer, analyst and historian Tim Kurkjian. “The shame of it all is, he was on track to the Hall of Fame.”

The bigger part of Jose Fernandez’s story is that he was here at all, in America, on a major-league mound.

His was the quintessential Miami story, one embraced by Cuban Miami because so many saw their own lives and dreams in his story. Most of us are lucky to have been born into freedom. Jose was not.

Three times as a youth he tried unsuccessfully to defect and was jailed each time. Finally at 15 he got out with his mother on a crowded small boat. En route to Mexico someone fell overboard. Not knowing who it was in the black night, Jose jumped in. It was his mother he rescued.

Tragedy impacting South Florida sports fans is not new. It did not start five years ago with Fernandez. And there is no parsing of the pain in other examples we offer. There is no ranking of tears or hurt.

Brian Piccolo, raised in Fort Lauderdale and a football player at Central Catholic High (later St. Thomas Aquinas), saw his Chicago Bears career abruptly cut short by cancer. He was immortalized in the TV movie “Brian’s Song.”

Dolphins first-round draft pick David Overstreet, following a promising rookie season at running back, died in Texas in 1984 when his Mercedes swerved and crashed into gas pumps at a filling station.

Former Miami Hurricanes star Jerome Brown, while with the Philadelphia Eagles, died along with a 12-year-old nephew in 1992 when his ZR1 Corvette spun out and slammed into a palm tree.

Derrick Thomas, Miami born and raised and then a Kansas City Chiefs star, saw his career and life end with a car accident in a snowstorm in 2000. The wreck left him paralyzed, and dead two weeks later.

Police finally just made an arrest in the 2006 murder of Hurricanes football player Bryan Pata.

Sean Taylor, the Hurricane-turned-Washington Redskin, saw a Pro Bowl NFL career end at 24 — the same age as Fernandez — when he was shot in a home invasion, dying one day later in 2007.

Nationally, the sports tragedies run from a deadly disease being named after Lou Gehrig to Kobe Bryant dying in a helicopter crash. From Tony Conigliaro to Len Bias and on and on.

This is not to suggest the Jose Fernandez tragedy was larger than any other. Tears are tears.

But it hurt. It still does, five years later, as we remember the person who might have been closer to the perfect pitcher than the perfect man.

Water was always the vessel for the young man who left us in tears.

A teenage boy set out once from Cuba across pitch black waters toward freedom.

Nine years later, in different black waters, he would die.

Today, somewhere in the Atlantic off Miami, Jose Fernandez is in the embrace of the ocean where his ashes were strewn.

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