September 27, 2016
I went into last night’s Marlins-Mets game knowing it was going to feel like a funeral. It was both better and worse than that, and I don’t think I can really put it into words, at least not today.
Wayne and I talked to Jack, our 10-year-old lover of baseball, about different ways people grieve and what the game would be like, and gave him the choice to watch or not, assuring him there was always an Off button. He chose to watch, propped up a sign for Jose with our Pepe` (a Spanish pet name for Jose) Fernandez pepper shaker, and we snuggled and cried together until he hit his own Off button by falling asleep.
Like grief itself, the emotional difficulty watching the game came in fits and starts. There was the stadium, with Jose’s name, number, and picture everywhere—on the scoreboards, on the field, on a giant wall that fans signed throughout the night, on T-shirts, signs, flags, and memorabilia scattered all over the place.
There were the Marlins players and coaches, guys we watch every night and feel attached to, all wearing black #16 Fernandez jerseys, with their faces contorted, many openly weeping, trying to figure out how to play a game with their hearts torn open.
Eight starters stood at the pitcher’s mound while a solo trumpet played a beautiful, mournful rendition of Take Me Out To The Ballgame. The missing starter was Adam Conley, the pitcher tasked with starting in Jose’s place; he remained in the dugout. “That was Jose’s mound today,” he said after the game.
There was the whole team huddled together on the field as Giancarlo Stanton told them through tears that they would pick each other up and get through the night together, and they all pointed their hands to the sky.
There were the Mets, who crossed the field to hug the Marlins before the first pitch, an act of heart, class, and brotherhood the likes of which I don’t know if Major League Baseball has ever seen. And the Mets fans- also Amazin’.
And then there was Dee Gordon. Lead-off, lefty batter Dee Gordon, who stepped into the right side of the batter’s box wearing Jose’s helmet, and took the first pitch for his lost teammate and friend, then switched helmets and sides, and hit a home run that could seemingly only be hit in the movies. Gordon—not a home-run hitter; this was his first of the season—rounded the bases, put his hand to the sky and his heart, and sobbing, was mobbed by his bereft team in the dugout.
It was a moment for the Marlins, and everyone watching, to catch a breath, and the Marlins made the most of it, going on to score six more runs in the next two innings, and winning the game 7-3. After the final out, they circled the pitcher’s mound once more, arm in arm, and remembered Jose. Manager Don Mattingly kneeled and kissed the rubber, the Marlins left their hats, and I don’t think you could find a dry eye at the game or in any home watching.
I still can’t believe he’s gone.
Another aspect of the game last night that touched me to the core, and will probably go largely un-noted by most of the post-game coverage, though it shouldn’t, was the Marlins broadcasting team.
We fans hear Rich Waltz call the game every night, and we—or at least I—needed to hear Rich last night. In hearing Rich’s voice, my own grief felt known instead of unknown, shared instead of isolated, and validated instead of questioned. Because even though everyone knows this was a tragedy, the intensity of my sorrow has felt disproportionate for someone I didn’t actually know.
Then, there was Rich, during one of the tribute montages, assuring us—all of us—that we did. “You knew Jose,” he said with as much gladness as anyone could muster on this night. “What you saw on the mound, what he was at the plate, what his teammates experienced in the dugout- that was Jose, in uniform and in life. You knew the passion, you knew the joy, you knew the love, and you knew that smile. Which means now, you know the pain, and now, you feel the sorrow….How fortunate are we, that we were able to love him, just as much as he loved us.”
That was Rich (and whoever else may have written that) embracing us in the Marlins family, in shared grief, and it was a gift.
That was just one moment in over five hours of coverage. How do you even call a game like that, especially when you’re still so raw yourself? A game that is essentially a memorial service, on one day’s notice, and balance it with an actual baseball game that still means something in the standings? I don’t think it could be truly balanced, and it was skewed toward Jose and the Marlins exactly how it should have been.
I don’t think the whole broadcasting team could have done better during a brutal job. Al Leiter was a good choice to call the game with Rich given the Marlins-Mets blend, and shared his 16-year-old-son’s simple yet poignant anguish (“He said, ‘Dad, what am I gonna do?’”), and the hard reality of a lot of us parents having to help our kids figure that out. I adore Craig Minervini, and he somehow managed to be his jovial self and somber at the same time. His voice cracked only on his last word of the night, like he didn’t have one more left to give. Even Jeff-how-can-I-insert-myself-into-the-story-Conine managed to hit the right notes.
All in all, the game was the painful, yet unavoidable, first step in what will be a long and complicated healing process of what outfielder Christian Yelich said is something “I don’t know if we’ll ever completely get over.”
It’s hard being a Marlins fan sometimes. Every baseball team has its issues, but ours often feel more, shall we say, colorful than most; not like rainbow colorful, but more like circus colorful. But last night, a night the Marlins grieved and honored and did Jose Fernandez proud, was by far the hardest it has ever been to be a Marlins fan, and also the easiest.
Honestly, I hope baseball is never this inspiring again.