Nearly 75 players and coaches from the Miami Marlins and New York Mets paid their respects Monday night for one of the best young pitchers in the game, José Fernández, 24, before playing in one of the most emotional games of their 162-game season.
For a brief moment, both teams disregarded their heated rivalry. The Marlins, who mathematically are still chasing a wild card spot, lined up across the diamond from the Mets, who are still trying to keep a lead in the wild card race.
In front of a stadium of mourning American pastime fanatics in Miami, 28-year-old Marlins second baseman, Dee Gordon, walked up to the plate in the bottom of the first inning, wearing his No. 16 Fernández jersey just like the rest of the team did.
But Gordon did something different. As the leadoff hitter for the Marlins offense, Gordon walked up to the plate, stepped into the box as a right-handed hitter in honor of Fernández, wearing Fernández’s exact helmet. He took the first pitch, walked away and gave the helmet back to the dugout and switched sides, now batting from his normal side with his regular helmet. Gordon’s tribute was over, or so he thought.
What happened next is the reason why we love sports. It’s the reason why we root for our respective teams for better or for worst, in misery and in happiness. Gordon provided a reason for people to cry and cheer and to forget about being sad for a moment. What he did rivals some of the greatest moments in the game.
Stepping into his normal side of the box, Gordon took a 2-0, 85 mph pitch from Bartolo Colon and hit a leadoff homerun to deep right field, giving the Marlins a 1-0 lead. Gordon hit his first homerun of the 162-game season with less than nine games remaining. He then pointed to the sky to Fernández with tears running down his face, delivering the second part of his tribute, unplanned at that. Just like that, everything seemed all right for a brief moment.
I, like so many others I’m sure, was choked up when that happened. It is moments like these that bring people together in the worst of times. And as a Mets fan who is desperately trying not to lose my mind in this crazy season, I didn’t find myself angry or upset at all when the Mets trailed 7-0 in an early part of the game: The game was bigger than a win or loss in a wild-card hunt.
Just as Mike Piazza helped heal a grieving nation on Sept. 21, 2001 with a homerun to put the Mets on top of the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium late in the game, only 10 days after the 9/11 attacks, giving New York City something to smile about, Dee Gordon gave not only Marlins fans, but fans of baseball and the American dream something to smile about.
Fernández wasn’t just a ball player who made millions of dollars because he had the “it”. He was a kid from my hometown of Tampa, FL. who went to Alonso High School, a rival of my own school, Steinbrenner High School. Before putting up Hall of Fame type numbers in the Majors over his too short career, he starred at Alonso, helping the Ravens dominate the Bay area.
The Tampa Bay Times, with the help of writer John Cotey, made sure to tell the tale of a young man with more than just a talent to hit and pitch. He was also a symbol of the American dream and represented everything Americans should aspire to be like.
Attempting to escape Cuba multiple times before being jailed, Fernández finally made it to the states alongside his mother, who if not for Fernández jumping into aggressive waters and swimming 30-plus yards to bring her back to the small boat they were traveling in, would’ve died after falling overboard.
As a sports reporter, and more importantly a sports fan, I live for these moments, of pure love, emotion, respect and that feeling that despite everything going wrong, sports was able to highlight some right, bringing people together once again.
It’s happened over and over again, and in recent years, the world has lost some great faces. With famous sports broadcast and BOOYAH enthusiast Stuart Scott passing away early in life because of cancer in 2015, and the King of golf, master of both the long and short game and the mixed drink of ice tea and lemonade, Arnold Palmer passing away on the same day as Feráandez, not even 24 hours later, the world has lost some good ones. I woke up in a hotel in North Carolina seeing the news of Fernández, and went to bed after seeing an Associated Press mobile notification that Palmer had died.
Sports are cruel. Life is crueler. Rest in peace to two of the greatest athletes and human beings the world has known. You will be missed.