Monday night, a plurality of eyes were fixed on the fall’s first presidential debate, featuring at least one individual that any given viewer mistrusts. Like many political events, it was a transparent exercise in attempted persuasion, and one would be left questioning either participant’s sincerity. Around the same time in the evening, the Mets and the Marlins were playing out the most important baseball game of the year.
I don’t want to belabor the contrast, but it was a most striking juxtaposition. No matter your leaning, the debate wouldn’t have left you feeling clean. You’d be on edge, hairs raised, to some degree agitated. Watching the Mets and the Marlins, however, could only leave you feeling deeply, truly human. Tears were shed and tears were shared. Watching from home or from a seat in the park, the Marlins won, 7-3. Jose Fernandez got the win, Jose Fernandez knocked all of their hits, and Jose Fernandez scored all of their runs.
Following the events of Sunday morning, there was no question the Marlins had to cancel their game. It was too soon, too unthinkable to play. The emotional blow was crippling. You can’t play a game if you can’t rise to your feet.
Come Monday, there was no question the Marlins had to proceed with their game. The game itself would be of little consequence, the fouls and the flies and the takes-too-long pitching changes. But only a game could be at the heart of the ceremony that baseball so desperately needed.
Grief is seldom coherent, and in the aftermath of the accident, there have been some complicated feelings of something like guilt. As much as fans hurt, fans aren’t Fernandez’s family. Even Fernandez’s own teammates are something short of being his own family. And beyond that, while Jose Fernandez died, two other young men also are dead, two young men unfamiliar to the greater public. Their deaths are no less sad, no less unfortunate. Something felt vaguely inappropriate about grieving but one of three losses.
The baseball world needed Sunday to advance into Monday. It needed for a game to be played, because only the game could give us direction and relieve us of the burden of guilt. Fernandez’s loved ones will pay their respects. The loved ones of the two others will pay their respects. There were three lives, and they were all involved in many circles. The game – that was for Fernandez’s baseball circle. It functioned as a wake, for the baseball community. We’ve all had feelings we needed to let out, and Monday gently guided their release.
From the fan perspective, it feels objectively silly to be so broken up about the loss of a stranger. And in truth, the feelings aren’t entirely about Fernandez himself – we’ve witnessed the sudden loss of a 24-year-old invincible, and that reminds us of the fragility we try in earnest to forget. The teammates and the coaches – they, at least, knew Fernandez, many of them well. The reasons for their heart-hurt are easier to place, but nevertheless, how you feel is how you feel, even if you’re not entirely sure why. The entire baseball community aches. The only way to heal is through baseball.
Yesterday’s was an experience of hurting while watching others hurt. As Fernandez’s peers paid tribute, we paid ours through theirs. We listened to the mournful trumpet, and we listened to the anthem. We remained silent when the ballpark was silent, and we were brought into the two teams embracing. We were brought into the Marlins encircling the mound, inscribing Fernandez’s number and rubbing dirt on their pants. We were brought into even Giancarlo Stanton’s red-eyed pregame speech, and after it was all over, with the Marlins triumphant, we were brought into the team again standing around the mound, bowing their heads and leaving their hats.
In the video, you see one Marlin – Fernandez, No. 16 – saying to the others, “let’s leave our hats.” Only some of the elements from the whole evening were planned. That was a spur-of-the-moment idea, with Fernandez’s teammates searching for every last way to honor his memory. No single tribute ever heals a soul, but for an instant, every tribute feels like it could. The players and coaches seized any opportunity to acknowledge their grief. And so our own was acknowledged, from some distance away, though still very much raw.
The most important baseball game of the year featured the most important home run of the decade. Leading off the bottom of the first, Dee Gordon took a pitch while batting right-handed, mimicking Fernandez’s stance and apparently wearing his helmet. Gordon then returned to his familiar box and, two pitches later, he hit his first home run of the season. Gordon was in tears as he crossed home plate, and he sought out the Marlins’ every embrace.
You’re under no obligation to believe it was fate. You’re under no obligation to believe it was divine. What it was was cathartic, the unplanned and entirely unpredictable tribute that will forever stand as the symbol and memory of the evening. The devastating reality is we don’t yet know the total volume of this collective grief, but Gordon’s home run allowed us to release so much of an unknowable amount. There was sadness after, as there was sadness before, yet sandwiched was one single flicker of elation. It was, one could figure, the first.
Sunday’s accident brought far more than just the baseball community to its knees. We are not alone in being hurt, and it feels at least slightly intrusive to be affected so deeply at all. One could conceivably question whether we even have the right. But Jose Fernandez touched untold millions of people, and Monday night, there was a ceremony allowing for the baseball world in particular to grieve. The ceremony took place around a baseball game, a game that was scheduled to be started by Fernandez himself. He was, with great misfortune, unable to make the start, but in place of one singular Jose Fernandez, there were nine.