A kid picks up a glove.
After having the nuances and interminable pauses and unwritten rules of a sport like baseball explained to him, for whatever reason, he still wants to play. So he does; from little league to high school and beyond, raising the eyebrows of parents and coaches along the way. Finally, some scout in a wrinkled shirt sees this kid throw and finally, an eyebrow raises that can make this kid’s dreams come true. He sends a report home - the kid’s legit; plus arm, deep arsenal, impressive wing span, and to spice things up, he throws in a little comparison: “He’s got a Halladay delivery” or “We’re looking at Kershaw velocity” or “Projects to be a real deGrom-type.”
What does that even mean? Attaching some 20-year-old’s delivery to a Hall of Famer’s career is a broad stroke in which to paint, because the process of developing as a baseball player tends to chew through the majority of those who set out to be the next Roy Halladay. Obviously, throwing “like” Roy Halladay doesn’t mean the kid IS Roy Halladay - just ask Charlie Morton. But by the time this trickles down to the fans, it’s the only part of the scouting report people are reading.
The scouting reports on Jose Fernandez are easy to find. Here’s one. You won’t find anybody dropping a big name next to Fernandez’s, though there have certainly been those considered “comparable” to him - The 2016 Baseball Prospectus listed them as Stephen Strasburg, Scott Kazmir, and Michael Wacha. Fernandez wasn’t an incomparable talent - highly talented, definitely, and seemingly on his way to an even higher tier, depending on the length of a career we’ll never see now - but he is incomparable in another sense, even at just 24 years old, as the first thing people remember about him is... well.
I just want to make a thread of Jose Fernandez gifs that show how much joy he brought to baseball and life pic.twitter.com/m8isAEgeaE— Herbo (@HerbMcDerb) September 25, 2016
His passing devastated everyone from teammates to strangers. I don’t have the perspective of a family member, a close friend, a fellow player, or a Cuban defector; the closest I’ve come to crossing an ocean on a raft is getting lost in Veterans Stadium as a child with my cousin, and the time it took me to reach “every man for himself” was shamefully small. Meanwhile, Fernandez was pulling his drowning mother out of the sea on his third attempt to reach America.
You don’t need me to list all of the reasons Fernandez was an exemplary human being whose strength in the face of enormous struggles makes you wonder exactly what you’ve done with your own life. So few of us push through our existence and wind up exactly where we need to be. Fernandez kept going, despite there being walls, laws, or the Gulf of Mexico in his way, and not only reached the United States, but the highest level of the sport he played professionally.
Which is how most of us met him: on a television screen in his debut against the Mets, for which he was as prepared as any rookie could be:
"I was nervous when they shot at me. I won't be nervous facing David Wright."
The intensity of Fernandez’s life before becoming a mainstream figure in MLB made all of the challenges of this sport seem minor in comparison. It didn’t tone down his competitiveness, he was just able to shake off the bad and enjoy the good more visibly than anybody who hadn’t had to survive a dictatorship and cross an ocean to get here. With that aura of elation around him at all times, fans in every jersey fell in love with him, but none more than those in the heavily Cuban Miami population.
“Jose has responded not just to the ballpark, the dimensions, and the fact that it’s a pitcher’s park, but also to the fact that the fans have taken to him and he to them. He has excelled at Marlins Park. Here’s a young man who’s had just a touch over a full season in the Major Leagues, and he has certainly established that this is his home park.”
—Marlins broadcaster Dave Van Horne, “The Voices of Baseball”
In the brief time we as fans had with him, Fernandez spread himself around with ease. Some players prefer to go through their careers gruff and wordless. Some players aren’t able to get under Chris Johnson’s skin so effortlessly that the third baseman has a complete meltdown. Some players storm away from the Phillie Phanatic as he tries to have them arrested.
Fernandez was game.
Countless players come and go from baseball, the sport leaving an eternal affect on them. But very few of them leave an eternal affect on baseball.
Watching a guy on TV makes you forget that he’s just as susceptible to cruel twists of fate as anyone. This stops being about baseball for now, because all you can do is grieve. There are no answers, and there is little comfort.
But we also have clip after clip of footage of a kid pounding his chest and laughing with his friends; we have the stories to tell of what he was like to future generations of ball players; and we’ll have the future ball players themselves, with names we don’t know yet, but who, armed with the raw talent and youthful vigor they grew up watching Fernandez exemplify on TV, are just waiting for their chance.
Some day, years from now, a kid picks up a glove. He or she dominates backyards and little league diamonds as coaches look at each other in silent astonishment. She’ll have a curve ball with a nickname and a heater that makes a radar gun shoot out sparks. The numbers she puts up will get a row of scout’s heads to crane up from their iPads. Reports filter in, first to the team offices, then to the media, of this kid who’s fist-pumping and bat-flipping and bear-hugging her way through the system. And this kid does it all with an irrepressible grin, having learned watching her favorite player growing up that in baseball - yes, baseball, the sluggish sport historically played by all manner of serious men with serious facial hair - it’s okay to smile.
In a game full of flukes, maybe this kid never makes it either; or, maybe a few years later she’s watching a pennant flag rise. But in or out of baseball, even to strangers watching on TV hundreds of miles away, somebody embodying Jose Fernandez has massive value.
Imagine the first time a scout says, “He’s a real ‘Jose Fernandez’-type.”
We’ll know exactly what that means.