José Fernandez, God, and America


As the sports world mourns the death of star Miami Marlins pitcher, 24 year-old José Fernandez, I admit it affected me more than most. But that’s really to say it affected me at all.

It’s not my business to post “rest in peace” about someone I didn’t know, who didn’t do anything for my life. You can’t force these things, though death makes for the opportune time to make it about the person posting rather than the person who is no longer around to read it. I’ve always had a problem with that.

José Fernandez died at age-24, two years younger than I am now. He was, whichever way you want to slant the statistics or metrics, one of the 3- or 5-best pitchers in Major League Baseball. From a competition standpoint we can safely say the sport will not be the same over the next decade, if only because now it can’t be. Fernandez wasn’t only one of the best on the planet at what he did, he was young. He had fire. He had charisma, and a great smile to match.

This was supposed to be one of MLB’s building blocks for the next generation. I’ll say what I want about preferring talent over heart when it comes to my favorite sports teams, but just let me know these guys give a shit. That’s all I really want.

José Fernandez had as much talent as anyone in baseball. But he also may have had as much heart as anyone in baseball.

We’ll probably never know all the details from his fatal boating accident on Sunday, but I’m just so sorry that we lost so much greatness so quickly.

The obligatory God stuff

In a truly dramatic and awe-inspiring spectacle, Marlins 2B and former teammate of José’s, Dee Gordon, hit a home run in Miami’s first at bat following his death:

Pretty amazing. It was Gordon’s first HR of the 2016 season, and just his 9th in his six-year career, which spans about 2,300 plate appearances. What I’m saying is: heading into the embedded at bat, Gordon averaged a home run about once every 285 trips to the plate.

After the game, Gordon was asked, “Somebody helping you out tonight?”

Man I told them boys if you don’t believe in God, you might as well start. You know, I never hit a ball that far, not even in BP… We had some help.

And I get it. If you are a believer I would wager that Gordon’s response to the emotional situation would occur almost 100% of the time. It’s the natural impulse.

It is too, however, both a lazy reaction and overwhelmingly likely to be wrong. Out of respect for the death of his friend, I’m giving Dee Gordon the benefit of “overwhelmingly likely” rather than saying he’s just wrong. There is an extremely remote, but non-zero, chance that God exists and either he or José Fernandez had some hand in hitting that home run.

On Tuesday Gordon appeared on CNN to say the same thing. “If y’all don’t believe in God, y’all need to start.”

I’m going to sound like such a new atheist here, but my first thought is: “Why?” What about a home run is evidence to start believing in God? If God was real, why would he not intervene to save Fernandez’s life on Sunday? Why would he be speaking to us with a HR after a player who brought joy to millions of people was dead, rather than just keeping that person alive in the first place?

I see the appeal to wishful thinking. It makes everyone feel better. Most of my extended family is religious, and a part of me envies that they have gone, and will go, their entire lives believing God has a special plan for them, and that when they die they will go to heaven. It’s a part of me I hate, but it’s a part nonetheless.

The best tribute

Rany Jazayerli used to write about the Royals on his blog Rany on the Royals. He also did a podcast with Joe Sheehan that ended a few years ago. I used to listen to it religiously.

Below is a transcription of a series he wrote on Twitter yesterday:

Jose Fernandez’s death has been weighing on me more than I expected, and I finally figured out why. It’s because he was a refugee. We don’t use “refugee” to describe Cubans much anymore–we reserve it for people from Muslim countries like Syria and Libya and Somalia. But how else to describe someone who boards a rickety boat to cross a wide sea to flee a totalitarian government other than “refugee”?

Jose Fernandez wasn’t a Cuban star like Orlando Hernandez or Yulieski Gurriel. He was a 15-year-old kid. And America took him in anyway. Fernandez became a prospect, and then a star, *in* America. And he became an American. And that’s what is so beautiful about America — that no one thinks it even the slightest bit out of the ordinary that Fernandez was given the opportunity to be both.

America didn’t care that Fernandez was a refugee – it gave him the chance to be great. And in return he made America greater. So if there’s one positive thing that may come from this unspeakable tragedy, I hope we can all reflect on the opportunity he was given. And that America has always been greater for, and been made greater by, her embrace of the huddled masses that wash up on her shore.

So maybe we can do more to accept those refugees who board rickety boats to cross a wide sea to flee a totalitarian government today. Maybe we won’t find the next Jose Fernandez. But maybe we’ll find the next Steve Jobs, himself the son of a Syrian immigrant. Fernandez’s narrative may change if we learn he’s culpable in the accident, but his death is only a national story because of his life. And his life was only made possible by a nation which, like few in history, welcomes those most in need. Let’s try to remember that.

Rany is Muslim, and while I think accepting Syrian refugees is a complicated issue — something that Rany is obviously advocating here — I agree with his sentiment about America in general. We’re a country where immigrants can reach a higher potential than the country they are coming from.

And it’s because America was built on free thinking that made it, and still makes it, such an attractive country to live in. The American dream of my ancestors began during the Civil War — they immigrated from Germany — and eventually settled in Illinois and Oklahoma as farmers.

There aren’t a ton of people in the U.S. that share my last name, but the majority remain in those two states and Montana. But I would bet, if I had to imagine a percentage, that something like 75% or more are of the Donald Trump mindset. Where we need to close our borders. Reject outsiders.

It is completely random that I happened to be born and raised in Southern California; I could just as easily still be in Oklahoma or Illinois; I could just as easily still be on a farm in some underdeveloped part of Germany. It’s less than a snap of the fingers in cosmic time that I ended up here instead of there (or anywhere else for that matter) in the last 150 years.

José Fernandez began his American dream in 2007 as a 15 year-old. I wonder if 150 years from now, much like I’m doing right now, one of his descendants will write about where it all started. How José started it all, and look how far they’ve come.

I’m really bad with farewells, so I hope you can forgive me for going off the rails a bit. I think I’m just conditioned to focus less on the end of something, because I’m always so fixated on the dead potential. What could have been.

I’ll get over that I’m sure.