Jose Fernandez's knack for connecting with children was one of his greatest gifts. The people who spent time around him at the ballpark each day recall the smiles he elicited over the dugout roof and the buzz he generated when he came out for pregame stretching.
Brian Schneider, the Miami Marlins' catching coach, saw that indomitable spirit on display when Fernandez was playing, and his family continues to feel Fernandez's presence on the anniversary of the pitcher's death. Schneider's two boys, Calin and Holden, have attached No. 16 decals to their little league batting helmets and still wear the "RIP'' T-shirts that Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon designed in Fernandez's honor. They've been unable to shake the memory of Fernandez, because he was too luminescent to forget.
"My kids spent a lot of time with Jose, because there weren't a lot of kids in the clubhouse their age," said Schneider, who has four children ranging in age from 5 through 10. "People still send me pictures every now and then of Holden and Jose that they took from the stands.
"Sometimes Holden will wake up and talk about how he had a dream about Jose. He'll say, 'Jose sleeps with me every night.' The kids are young and I don't think they get the full aspect of what really happened. They just know he's not around anymore."
A year ago today, the unthinkable became reality through a series of incremental updates. Shortly after 9 a.m. on a Sunday, the Marlins released a statement that they were "devastated by the tragic loss of José Fernández.'' The subsequent news accounts filled in the blanks: Fernandez, 24, died in a boating accident off Miami Beach at roughly 3 a.m. His 32-foot See Vee struck a jetty at a speed of 65.7 mph, instantly killing the pitcher and two other passengers, Emilio Jesus Macias, 27, and Eduardo Rivero, 25.
The personal and professional ramifications were too staggering to digest in one sitting. Fernandez had already won a Rookie of the Year award and made two All-Star appearances, and he was looking forward to a third All-Star Game in 2017 in Miami. He was such a drawing card and iconic figure in the city that his outings were referred to as "Jose Day."
Upon Fernandez's death, the Marlins and their fans commingled in a state of shock and grief. The team displayed Fernandez's No. 16 on an orange pillar on the Marlins Park West Plaza, and hundreds of admirers showed up to leave flowers and photos and write messages with black Sharpies. Shortly thereafter, those same fans lined Felo Ramirez Drive and chanted "Jose! Jose!'' as the Marlins accompanied the hearse carrying Fernandez's body to a Coconut Grove church for a blessing.
When the games resumed, outfielder Giancarlo Stanton addressed his teammates with red-rimmed eyes and Gordon's body quaked with emotion as he circled the bases following a home run he hit in his first at-bat since Fernandez's death. The moment was cathartic, yet painful enough that Gordon has no interest in watching the replay. He prefers to focus on the Jose Fernandez whose generosity and exuberance filled every room he entered.
"He was just a good person with a great heart,'' Gordon says. "He was always cool. You never saw him have a bad day.''
Once the initial tributes to Fernandez subsided and the Marlins' organization began contemplating a future without him, the narrative took a sudden turn. A toxicology report by the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Department found that Fernandez had cocaine in his system and a blood alcohol content of 0.147, well above the legal limit of 0.08. Then a 46-page report issued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee in March determined that Fernandez was behind the wheel of the boat when the fatal accident occurred.
In an April interview with ESPN.com, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria reflected lovingly on his relationship with Fernandez and outlined his plans to build a statue in the pitcher's memory outside Marlins Park. Loria said the monument would be 10 feet high, because Fernandez was a "larger than life'' figure.
Loria has since gone underground, declining interview requests as the days pass until an ownership transition to a group headed by Derek Jeter. Jeter cut ties with franchise favorites Tony Perez, Andre Dawson, Jack McKeon and Jeff Conine last week, so it seems unlikely that he would support building a monument to such a controversial figure from the organization's past.
In the South Florida sports community, the circumstances surrounding Fernandez's death have created a schism between his hard-core supporters and those who think his legacy was irretrievably tarnished by the investigative findings.
"The Cuban community still adores him and thinks of him as the guy who took four attempts to escape Castro and made the most of his abilities,'' said Josh Friedman, host of a nightly talk radio show on 790 the Ticket in Miami. "Besides his talent on the mound, people remember this smile and charisma and aura he had. He was like a supernova down here.
"When the Florida Fish and Wildlife report came out, that muddied the waters a little bit. I think a lot of people thought the statue was just a horrible idea and poor judgment on the part of Jeffrey Loria. If Fernandez had been the victim of a DUI, that would have been one thing. But some people had a big problem with it, because he was at the controls. The calculus changed, and it's a more complicated and mixed legacy now.''
While the public takes sides, Fernandez's fellow Marlins remember him as a force of nature and the resident clubhouse social director at Marlins Park. He was high-maintenance at times, but his zest for life made him stand out in the crowd.
"I looked at him as a young kid, full of fire and very emotional,'' Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. "He would come in and we would talk about different things. He would be late and I would be like, 'Jose, you've got to be here with everybody else,' and he would start telling me a story and be halfway crying about his girlfriend or whatever.
"You felt like it was your kid talking to you about a problem he had at home. It just felt different. I knew he was emotional. He was a typical -year-old who had the world by the tail. You thought he had the world by the tail, but it was a little more complicated than that."
"He was way different (than anyone I had ever met). He was different as a teammate and different as a player, and the team is different with him not here. The only thing we can do is keep going. You never know when God will turn off the lights."Marcell Ozuna
Fernandez's absence has had a profound impact on the Marlins' 2017 season. Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, J.T. Realmuto and Gordon give the team the foundation for a formidable offense, but the Marlins are 73-81 in large part because of a starting rotation that ranks near the bottom of the National League in multiple categories. Aces of Fernandez's magnitude simply can't be replaced on the field.
The emotional fallout has been more profound on some days than others. On July 31 -- what would have been Fernandez's 25th birthday -- his mother and girlfriend, Maria Arias, visited Marlins Park with his daughter, Penelope, who was born in late February. As media members looked on, Gordon carried the baby girl through the clubhouse to the locker stall where the Marlins have set up a shrine in Fernandez's honor.
Mattingly misses Fernandez most acutely during games, when the pitcher would roam the dugout with wiseacre comments and a relentless energy.
"When he didn't pitch, he was one of those starters who are all over the place," Mattingly said. "He was on your team, on the umpires, fired up. [Clayton] Kershaw is like that. They say [Max] Scherzer is like that, and I've heard [Adam] Wainwright is like that. A lot of guys are just non-existent on the days they don't pitch. You wouldn't even know they're there. Jose was always there."
Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras died on the roads of the Dominican Republic in recent years, and Fernandez has been cited as an example of another young athlete whose recklessness led to his demise. But the teammates who shared a clubhouse with him choose to focus on the life he lived rather than the events leading up to his death. They loved and miss the Jose Fernandez who never stopped smiling, bantered constantly with fans and was in his element playing catch with first graders.
"We don't remember the negative," said Ozuna, Fernandez's closest friend on the team. "I always remember the good vibes and good moments he brought to everybody. I remember everything positive.
"It was unbelievable to hear the news when I woke up that day. He wasn't only my friend -- he was like one of my brothers. On days off he would call me and say, 'What are you doing? Come on over here. Bring your kids.' Him and his mother and grandmother loved my kids, and I would bring them and share those days off."
Ozuna, like others in Fernandez's inner circle, recalls his late teammate's sense of joy upon learning he would be a father. When baby Penelope appeared in the Marlins' clubhouse in July, several Miami players observed that she looked just like her daddy.
"Jose was excited," Ozuna said. "He kept telling me, 'I'm waiting on that moment when I'm going to see my baby born.' Then God turned the lights off. But he's in a better place now.
"He was way different (than anyone I had ever met). He was different as a teammate and different as a player, and the team is different with him not here. The only thing we can do is keep going. You never know when God will turn off the lights."