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The most loathed man in MLB? There's another side to Jeffrey Loria

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Crowd chants 'Jose' as Jose Fernandez's hearse passes by Marlins Park (0:38)

Teammates and club personnel walk beside and behind Jose Fernandez's hearse. (0:38)

Editor's note: This story originally ran on April 13, 2017.

NEW YORK -- After Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident in late September, Miami Marlins players, coaches and manager Don Mattingly spent days in an almost catatonic state of grief. They dressed in silence, in a robotic haze, as they accepted the reality that a beloved teammate would never walk through the clubhouse door again.

Jeffrey Loria, the team's owner, typically avoids the clubhouse. He regards it as the players' sanctuary. But a voice within told him that mourning calls for a different set of rules. As one game of the homestand fed into the next, Loria went player to player, locker to locker, dispensing words of solace and big, grandfatherly hugs. By the time Fernandez's hearse crept down Felo Ramirez Drive with Loria's hand on the right fender en route to a public viewing at St. Brendan Catholic Church, the grieving Marlins were closer than they imagined they could be.

Loria's compassion stuck with me, and when we crossed paths at the winter meetings in Washington, D.C., I told him how I admired the organization for its dignified and caring response to Fernandez's death.

Like most writers, I had a surface relationship with Loria at best. He would pop in at Citizens Bank Park when the Marlins passed through Philadelphia and we would exchange perfunctory hellos. One time I blurted, "Hi, Jeff,'' rather than the more formal "Jeffrey,'' and a team beat writer took great pleasure in ribbing me for the breach of etiquette.

Then last summer, I stumbled into what might be characterized as a breakthrough. While working on a Mattingly profile, I spotted Loria in the dugout and asked for a comment. He praised Mattingly, then steered the conversation toward some of his other moves that have gotten lost in the negative press he has received during his tenure with the team.

"You've taken a couple of shots yourself,'' he said.

This is true. In 2012, when the Marlins sent Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson to Toronto a few months after the opening of a new, taxpayer-funded stadium in Miami, I referred to Loria's team as a "dysfunctional, rudderless reality show of a mess.'' When Loria gave Giancarlo Stanton a record-setting $325 million contract two years later, I questioned the wisdom of the deal and called his ownership group "credibility-impaired.''

In the big picture, my critiques were relatively benign compared to those of Montreal baseball fans, who regard him as a "weasel," or a national columnist who referred to him as a "skunk.'' And Loria quickly showed a willingness to move past my jibes and engage on a number of topics in and out of baseball.

This offseason, I spoke to several people who described someone with no resemblance to the George Steinbrenner-meets-Montgomery Burns-caliber tyrant known for firing managers and pocketing revenue-sharing money. They described a complex man who values long-term relationships and takes care of his employees the way Steinbrenner once did with the Yankees.

"I love the guy,'' said Marlins senior adviser Orrin Freeman, one of the franchise's longest-tenured employees. "He's one of the most loyal people I've ever met. He reminds me very much of my father.''

Even a former Marlins employee who was fired by the club said he bore no personal animus toward Loria. "It's tough to describe Jeffrey,'' the person said. "He can be tremendously caring and very charitable. Underneath it all, he's a very benevolent person. But that doesn't necessarily make you a good businessman or owner or leader of a franchise.''

Loria's relationship with Fernandez was particularly compelling. So when reports began to surface that Loria was weighing offers to sell the franchise, I wondered: Was Fernandez's death so personally devastating that it might prompt Loria to get out of baseball altogether?

In late March, I made arrangements to interview Loria at his office-slash-art studio on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and he addressed topics ranging from Fernandez's death to reports that he might sell the team and become the American ambassador to France.

You enter Loria's inner sanctum through an unmarked door, which leads to a front gallery filled with paintings and sculptures by 20th-century masters. In the inner library, two large bookcases line the burgundy walls, and Loria sits on a couch in front of the classic Saul Steinberg illustration "View of the World from 9th Avenue,'' which graced the cover of The New Yorker on March 29, 1976.

The couch is flanked by an end table with the Marlins' 2003 World Series trophy, and Loria jokes that he hopes the team wins another one soon so that he can have a matching set of "table lamps.''

For the better part of the next 90 minutes, Loria dives into a conversation that seems half interview, half therapy session. At one point, his eyes well with tears. And several times he refers to Fernandez in the present tense, as if his spirit is in the room.

We begin with that unforgettable Sunday morning phone call in September, when David Samson broke the news about Jose Fernandez.

What do you recall about those moments when you first learned Jose had died?

Jeffrey Loria: It was, to say the least, awful. Jose was not my biological son, but I treated him like that -- like a son. I got a phone call like that in 1994, when my sister was killed in a plane crash. It came so suddenly that you just don't know how to react. I was stunned. I was speechless because this isn't supposed to happen. This isn't the way life is supposed to go.

I gave some instructions about getting everybody together and what I thought ought to be said to them. I was in New York at the time, and everybody was in Florida about to play a game. And as you know, the game was postponed.

When did you first become aware of Jose Fernandez as a prospect?

It goes back to looking at amateurs for the draft. I asked our scouts if they could show me their top four choices and tell me a little bit about who they were thinking about drafting. We had had some rough drafts along the way, and I wanted to hear what their thinking was. If I'm writing the check, I want to know where the hell it's going.

So they show me the four players, and he struck me for some reason. I wasn't aware there were hundreds of scouts following him. I wanted to know more about him.

When I heard what [scouting director] Stan Meek was thinking, I had a very short conversation with him, and I said, "With that kind of a story and coming to America the way he did, that's probably one of the most interesting starts I can imagine. Here's a 17- or 18-year-old kid. I haven't seen him throw except in some video, but this sounds exciting. Do whatever you guys want to do, but my vote would be there."

Of course, we drafted him. As it turned out, there were a number of teams right after us who weren't happy.

Fernandez lasted until the 14th pick in 2011.

It was inconceivable. Once you see this young man and are around him, you realize you are in the presence of somebody different.

"This kind of talent comes along so rarely. It's like in my other world: painters and artists. I've been close to great artists and great architects, and I view the relationships as special. And I viewed that relationship with him as special."

Jeffrey Loria on his relationship with Jose Fernandez

After we drafted him, he came to the ballpark to say hello as the first-round pick of the Marlins. The first thing I noticed was that incredible smile. He came over and gave me a big hug, and I said, "I'm so happy you're here. Come and sit down and watch a ballgame." I swear that in the middle of the game, he wanted to know if he could pitch.

He was with a friend. I don't know if he was with his mother or not. He turned and said, "Can I get into this game?" And I said, "It doesn't work that way, Jose."

In all of my baseball life going back to when I was a kid, I have encountered three players who had personality that was matched by talent: Mark Fidrych, Fernando Valenzuela and Jose. It's a commodity and a character you don't find. His confidence and uniqueness is so apparent. All you have to do is talk to him.

When he reached the big leagues, was there a cultural adjustment for him?

He comes to New York. We're playing the Mets in the second series. Guys are coming off the plane, and everyone is carrying these fancy bags, and he's carrying two shopping bags. And I said, "Jose, before you get on the bus, what's in that?"

He bought all of the accoutrements that major league players like. The X box, the Y box, the Z box, whatever they have. Radios and equipment and stuff. The best word I know is "Schlepping bags." I said, "You look like a schlep. You can't be dragging that stuff around. Tomorrow I'm going to meet you, and we're going to get you a proper bag."

So I took him to Tumi. I always overspend on people I care about, whether it's family or friends, so I picked the best bag in the place. He comes in, and I said, "What do you like here?" He picks the cheapest piece of nothing, and I said, "You can't do that." He didn't want to hit me up for an expensive bag. I said, "You're only going to buy one for a long while, and this should be a good one." So we bought him the expensive one. He didn't want to do it himself. And he wanted to pay for it -- I wouldn't let him do it.

I saw him the next day at Citi Field, and he had this bag, and he was so proud of it. I said, "I don't want to ever see it again. It's yours."

What was it about him that drew you to him so quickly?

His personality, for starters, matched by the talent that I've seen a couple of other times through the years as a fan and as an owner. Jose took up a lot of space and a lot of air in a room -- in a good way.

I used to watch him walk up and down the dugout. He had his arm around everybody. Last year, he and Barry Bonds together, they were like brothers. Barry absolutely adored him, as everybody does the first time you meet him.

He could be annoying, like everybody. I'm not saying he was perfect. He could be charming. But what he was, above all, was different.

Did you have any rituals or greetings with him?

My usual greeting with him was a tease of one kind or another. It wasn't a high-five or anything like that. It was to put him off-guard and to tease him, which I loved.

What would you tease him about?

I would say, "What is that thing growing on your face? At least even it out." He'd say, "I shaved. I look great." I would say, "Well, go back and look in the mirror because it's really awful. It looks like you shaved one side of your face." I remember early on, he had these unbelievable sneakers. They were blue and red-orange and white with some yellow. They were god-awful. I would see him coming in with his sneakers, and I would say, "How far did you have to chase that guy to get those?"

In spring training, he would come up to me and say, "I think I'm going to be the Opening Day pitcher. I know we wear home whites. Can we wear the red-orange shirt instead?" I said, "Why should we make an exception for you? You're only part of a team." Then I'll tell him, "We'll wear the red-orange shirt." I let him do it twice. Was anybody hurt by it? No. Did anybody think he was a privileged character? No.

He loved that red-orange. He even told me one day, "I'm going to get a glove with that color." I said, "Why not? It will blend in with your shirt, and no one will ever see the ball coming."

Giancarlo Stanton, A.J. Ramos and Ricky Nolasco took a trip to Europe to decompress after Fernandez's death. What about you?

My wife and I went to Italy and France. It was kind of an escape to bring myself back together, I guess. It's painful. It's painful, and it hurts all the time.

I went to Europe to try and recover -- not that you can recover. And I found myself walking down the Spanish steps in Rome and taking a walk down a side street and all of a sudden sitting down on a bench and crying my eyes out. People would come by and were wondering, "What's the matter with you? Did something happen to you? Are you ill or something?" You can't explain it to anybody. It's one of those things you never forget. You just try to live with it.

Fernandez's death has hit you so profoundly, you seem to have difficulty moving past it. Is it harder than you imagined?

I never moved past my sister's loss, and that's 22 years now. And then to have this happen in the way it happened -- so suddenly -- it's not easy to comprehend or to deal with easily. I love this kid, plain and simple.

This kind of talent comes along so rarely. It's like in my other world: painters and artists. I've been close to great artists and great architects, and I view the relationships as special. And I viewed that relationship with him as special.

I can't paint. I can't draw a line. I took a drawing course when I was at Yale, and I was the worst one in the class. I was an art historian, and you're not supposed to be able to make the art. You're supposed to look at it.

I remember once saying to Jose, "My father used to throw a version of a curveball which I always had trouble catching. I never understood how to make the ball move. Show me." So one day, Jose showed me what he did to the baseball and how he gripped it. And of course, he'd stand 60 feet away, and I would throw the ball, and it would go straight. I just couldn't do it.

How did you feel after toxicology reports showed that Fernandez had alcohol and cocaine in his system at the time of the crash?

I know Jose to be a different kind of person. I know there were reports. I know a different person. I know a kid who was fun-loving. I didn't know a kid who was involved with anything bad. The only thing bad he was involved with was trying to beat your ass right off the plate. That's the only thing I ever saw.

From time to time, he would call me and say, "I want to go out and buy a car. Come with me." So I would go with him. It was one fast sports car after another, and I would dissuade him. One day I said, "If you're gonna buy one of these cars, at least buy a car where if you have an accident, God forbid, you'll be all right." So we went and looked at some Bentleys. They were just a little bit too old-looking, too stodgy for him, but he ended up buying what I would call intelligent vehicles.

I would say, "Look, I have a Ferrari, and I'm going to sell it because I'm going to get killed on I-95 with that thing." You're riding on those very low cars, and you're looking up, and you see the wheels of trucks right next to you, and they're above your head. You see an accident every day on 95. Someone is killed every day in a motorcycle or a sports car.

He was interested in the latest things America could offer him because he was now in the land of opportunity and a great country. Everything he did, he wanted to do in a hurry, including becoming a citizen. He became a citizen in record time. He taught himself English in a year or two. If you heard him speaking, you would never know he wasn't born here. His English was amazing. He was self-taught. He taught himself by reading comics, conversing, watching television all day long so he could get the nuances of the language. He was extremely bright.

Are you skeptical about the veracity of the toxicology reports?

No, I'm not skeptical. I accept what I read. But that's not the person I knew.

Do you think he might have felt pressure because he was about to become a father and there were some other big changes in his personal life?

None of us were inside his head, so we don't know what guided him into doing anything he did in the last month or so. I never saw any evidence of anything abnormal or any evidence of him doing foolish things, and I was around him a lot.

Then again, he's not going to say to me, "Hey, by the way, I'm doing something I shouldn't be doing." But I never saw it. I find it hard to believe. But I accept what I'm told. It doesn't make it any easier.

Did you talk to him about becoming a father?

A couple of times. He was very excited about it. He was joyful. He was spending all his time going around asking people what they thought of baby names. He came up with the name [Penelope] after interviewing 5,000 people.

He wanted to be accepted, like we all do in our lives growing up. We want to be part of the baseball industry that he loved. And he always wanted to be better than everybody else. He always wanted to have that edge.

One winter, I heard he was pushing cars and tires around race tracks. Have you heard that one? Oh my God. He was pushing these gigantic tires and then cars. So I called him and said, "Jose, would you like to start the season on the DL?" And he said, "Why?" I said, "Because you can't pitch with a hernia. Give it a little thought, and maybe do something else." So he went immediately to riding bicycles. That was his choice of challenges.

He had to have challenges all the time. I remember a game two years ago when we were playing the Braves. He was in the on-deck circle. I always sit down the row away from the dugout, so no one thinks I'm looking in the dugout. I'm sitting in the seat, and he's in the on-deck circle swinging the bat. He would turn around and talk to anybody who would listen. He's talking to someone behind me.

I said, "OK, big shot, this is your last at-bat. You've been telling me you're gonna hit a home run all year. You're out of opportunities." He hits a home run and stands and admires it, and Brian McCann, the catcher, is pissed off at him. Jose comes back and looks at me. I never could forget that grin.

There were reports that the Marlins tried to sign Fernandez to a long-term contract early in his career. Do you think about that after his death?

We offered him a contract a while back. I believe we were looking to [buy out] at least one year of free agency. I guess it just wasn't to be. He didn't want to do it.

Two or three times, I said to him, "You really ought to take that first contract and set yourself and your family up for life." But I guess he was convinced he could believe in himself and nothing would happen. When you're 21 or 22 years old, you think you're invincible.

From an outsider's perspective, your affection for Jose Fernandez seems to reveal a different side of you. Does it bother you that you come across as such a villain in your public image?

I don't talk about it. Most people don't know me. Most reporters don't know me. They never make an effort to know me.

What don't they know that they should?

Ask people like our scouts. I'm that way with my family: thoughtful, generous, caring, loving. But those words don't sell newspapers. What sells newspapers is, "How can you shoot him down? What can you do to take a potshot at him?" But I'm immune to that now. I don't care anymore.

"I probably know as much about baseball and the game itself and the history of the game as anybody who's ever owned a team."

Jeffrey Loria

It doesn't take away from my love of the game, which is genuine. I probably know as much about baseball and the game itself and the history of the game as anybody who's ever owned a team. I'm closer to my players than most people are. I don't think you'll find too many of them who'll say anything other than "good guy." Talk to Don Mattingly. You need to ask what he thinks. Talk to these people.

Has Jose's death had enough of an impact to make you think about selling the team?

I don't know. I can only tell you that when this all happened, people naturally assumed what you're saying or maybe thought that. People started asking whether you would consider it. I don't deny that people have inquired. But I'm still in the thinking stage of what I want to do. We have a real good club this year, and that's where my focus is: trying to win.

I must admit when I went down for spring training this year, I looked around for Jose, and he wasn't there. That's kind of hard.

President Donald Trump reportedly is considering you to be his ambassador to France. Where does that stand?

I used to see him in Yankee Stadium. We used to sit and talk about baseball.

It's something I'm thinking about. It's a great honor to have been asked by the president of the United States to do that. I've spent a good part of my adult life in France. I went as a junior and a senior in college, and I've been back and forth hundreds of times since. I love the country and the culture. It's something I'm giving serious thought to. It is what it is. We'll see what happens.

Don't you need diplomatic experience to be an ambassador?

You just need to have some familiarity with the country and, I guess, a good business head on your shoulders and some degree of success in your life. You're the representative of the president in that country, and you have to be a liaison with that country's highest officials and explain what was done or what's going to happen, promote American business and things like that. If I was going to promote anything, it would be baseball.

Speaking of which, the Marlins will be hosting the All-Star Game in July. What's the excitement level on that?

It's quite an honor to be given that by Major League Baseball. Miami is the perfect place to have a festival like that, and we're going to do it right. My philosophy on life is "Do it right, or don't do it." So we're gonna do it right.

The Marlins have set aside a locker for Fernandez in the clubhouse. What else do you have planned to honor him?

We're having a big sculpture of Jose made for the plaza or maybe in front of the stadium. William Behrends is doing it. He did the Willie McCovey and Willie Mays sculptures out in San Francisco.

I went through hundreds and hundreds of photographs with the sculptor and gestures of Jose's face to try and make it perfect. No one else is going to get involved in a piece of sculpture other than me, right? I've spent 50 years in that world.

We're going to cast it in bronze and paint the glove the red-orange that Jose would like, and that will be the only color on it. I don't want to make it kitschy, but that was his favorite thing. Hopefully we'll see it in six months or so. It's a very long process to cast a sculpture that's 9 or 10 feet high, as opposed to 6 feet.

Why 9 or 10 feet high?

Because Jose was larger than life.