I was speechless. The headline on my September 26th newsfeed couldn’t be true: Miami Marlins right handed pitcher Jose Fernandez was dead at age twenty-four. I was blown away.
American Jews have a special bond with the game of baseball. And I am the poster boy for that reality. I grew up a Baltimore Orioles fan. I still love the O’s, but since I moved to Atlanta in the late 90s, the Braves have been my team. My kids and I follow the Braves closely. On a Saturday night after Shabbat, it’s pretty normal to find the Lamberts eating pizza, drinking Virgil’s Root Beer, and watching the Atlanta Braves.
As Braves fans, we see the Miami Marlins play a lot since they are in our division. Back in 2013, a young Cuban-born pitcher named Jose Fernandez made his debut for the Marlins. From the very beginning, my oldest son Joseph and I agreed that the Braves were going to have their hands full for a long time with this guy whenever we had to face him. Jose Fernandez was a special human being. Not only was he an incredibly talented athlete, he also had a sense of presence and joy that was unique.
Early on the morning of Sunday, September 25th, Jose and two of his friends were killed in a boating accident after a collision on the jetty rocks off of Miami Beach. Again, Jose Fernandez was only twenty-four years old. I told my son Joseph later that day that if I could pick one right-handed pitcher in the world to pitch Game 7 of the World Series, it would have been Jose Fernandez (the left-handed pitcher would be Clayton Kershaw). But as wonderful as it was to watch him pitch, I found him to be more intriguing as a personality. I found three things to be particularly inspiring about the person and story of Jose Fernandez.
Perseverance: Jose Fernandez was a great example of perseverance. He was born in Cuba and did not come to the United States until he was fifteen years old. He actually failed to reach the United States three times by sea before making it here successfully with his fourth attempt in 2008. A story was told on ESPN that during one of those attempts, someone fell into the sea and Jose jumped into the water to the rescue. According the story, Jose did not know when he jumped in to the dangerous waters that the person that he was seeking to retrieve was his own mother. I was moved to tears by this. Additionally, in 2014, still at the beginning of his promising career, Jose Fernandez experienced a torn ulnar collateral ligament, which led to “Tommy John” surgery. That procedure involved a one year recovery process. As a result of grueling rehabilitation, Jose Fernandez made his way back to the big leagues in 2015 and enjoyed the same success and dominance that he had before the surgery. This was an impressive comeback.
His smile: Jose Fernandez smiled more than any baseball player that I can remember in recent memory. He would even do this on the pitcher’s mound during games. Speaking as a former college pitcher and pitching coach myself, protocol for pitchers is to pretty much remain stoic with your emotions. Right or wrong, that’s just the way pitchers operate. But Jose Fernandez didn’t roll that way. His joy for the game of baseball just oozed. More than a few times while watching games, I got a kick out of his friendly and animated bantering with opposing players. This was Jose Fernandez. It was refreshing.
He honored his mother and grandmother: Jose Fernandez was quoted as saying that his grandmother, Olga, was “the love of his life.” He had a reputation for being close to his family. It spoke volumes that the Miami Marlins wanted to express honor for Jose’s love for his mother by carrying the entire team (two busloads) over to Jose Fernandez’s mother’s house on the morning of his death so that they could comfort her.
I haven’t had much time to reflect on this, but the death of this young athlete has hit me harder than I would have expected. I am going to miss this charismatic athlete in the years to come. There will be many of us who, for some time, will wonder what could have been.
On another level, I’m not sure if Jose Fernandez was a man of faith. But for me, as a man of faith, I find the life of Jose Fernandez to be inspiring. And I see things in his life and story that serve as good reminders. As followers of Yeshua, especially those who are involved in Messianic Judaism, perseverance is so important. Biblically speaking, the future of Messianic Judaism is bright, but there are many challenges along the way.
Jose Fernandez’s smile reminded me of my studies of Talmud Tractate Pirkei Avot this past summer. The sages emphasize that a pleasant countenance is important if we want to reflect our Father in heaven. As comments have poured in about Jose Fernandez, so many were touched by his smile. As followers of Yeshua, I think it is important for us to remember how much impact a smile can have on others.
Lastly, what a great legacy that Jose Fernandez left as far as his relationship with his mother and grandmother. He was known to show them great honor. I don’t know if Jose had a faith in God that inspired him, but whatever served as his motivation, his example is a great reminder for us as disciples of Yeshua for us to be known as people who show honor to our parents.
Jose Fernandez—just this morning I told my son Joseph how much I am going to miss seeing him throw that incredible slider and smoking fastball. But more than that, I’m going to miss Jose Fernandez the person. His short stint on the baseball stage impacted my life and countless others. He will be missed.