MIAMI -- One of the many pleasures of attending MLB All-Star Week festivities is looking at all the different home fans' jerseys and shirseys. The All-Star Game, unlike the Super Bowl or NBA All-Star Game, is not specifically targeted toward destination venues -- your New Orleans, your Los Angeles, your Jerryworld. The All-Star Game is a traveling roadshow that goes everywhere, giving cities like Cincinnati and Minneapolis an opportunity, for one week, to be the center of the sports world. When you are Los Angeles, you are used to the world coming to you. You don't get that often in Kansas City, even if maybe you should.
The All-Star Game is a unifying event for pilgrimage. I remember, three years ago, talking to people from Central Kentucky who drove to Cincinnati just to be near baseball's jewel week; one of them began leaping up and down when she thought she saw Jack Morris. (It was really him.) How often do you get to see a World Series trophy in person? The All-Star Week and all its FanFest fanfare provide that opportunity. And so people flock. And, so, it's a week to dust off that old jersey you haven't worn in a while and head out to see baseball strut its stuff.
When the average, casual fan buys a jersey, it's going to last them for a while: They don't rush out and buy the hot new acquisition every year. It's why you'll always see JETER 2 at Yankee Stadium, or ORTIZ 34 at Fenway Park, or even PUJOLS 5 at Busch Stadium. (You can still see MCGWIRE 25 there a bunch too.) So the All-Star Game is a way to see not just the most popular current players, but those who captured their hearts in the past and never let go. In Cincinnati, it was ROSE 14. In Minnesota, it was HRBEK 14, or even, sometimes, SANTANA 57. In San Diego, it was obviously GWYNN 19. Those players aren't just "ambassadors" -- the official title given to Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich this week in Miami -- of the game, but avatars for the city, and generations of citizens. They are more visible representations of what people in an area value more than mayors, or local attractions, or tourist stops. They are who they are.
This weekend in Miami, the one jersey you absolutely could not escape: FERNANDEZ 16.
Jose Fernandez would have turned 25 years old at the end of July, and this was supposed to be his week. Giancarlo Stanton is the power hitter with the massive contract, but it was Fernandez who had this city's heart. He pitched with his soul beating out of his chest, with passion oozing from every pore, with a smile you could see from every crevice of the echoing canyon that is Marlins Park. He was a direction to point, a True North not just for the Marlins, but baseball itself. What's baseball going to look like in the future? How about a young Cuban flamethrower who laughs and smiles and expresses the truest, purest joy at playing a glorious child's game at the highest levels. Fernandez played baseball the way everyone should play baseball: like they understand what a giddy gift the game truly is. You couldn't take your eyes off him. It's important not to forget that.
He was at the All-Star Game in 2013, his rookie season, where he threw a perfect inning and joked on Twitter that he was so excited he thought he "was going to throw 110." He was there again last year, but all he could talk about was what he was going to do next year, when the game was in Miami, his city, his team, his home. "Ever since we finished the All-Star Game last year, he was anxious for this year's game to get here," Jose's mother, Maritza Gomez, told the Miami Herald this week. "He knew that he had a guaranteed place in this All-Star Game. … He was so excited. He was always talking about when it would arrive this year and his All-Star Game." This whole week was supposed to be about him, which means it would be all about what baseball can be, the direction it is going, the future it holds.
Last September, of course, ended that, ended everything. Nearly 10 months later, Fernandez's death remains unfathomable, the immortal vanishing in an instant. The circumstances of his death are awful and infuriating, but they really are beside the point for anyone other than self-righteous moralists. All that matters is that he is gone.
There is a memorial for him outside Marlins Park, and Major League Baseball plans on honoring him at the game itself on Tuesday night. But the most eternal Jose Fernandez memorial is the one that you see on the backs of fans all around Marlins Park and FanFest at the Miami Beach Convention Center. The fans cheer for Stanton and Christian Yelich. But Fernandez was their heart.
It is an odd, halting, haunting memorial, but it's the most significant one. Fernandez jerseys weren't bought to be memorials, after all; fans just bought themselves and their children Fernandez jerseys because he was their favorite player, because he was going to be the centerpiece of everything for this franchise that still feels broken and yearning without him. You wear a Fernandez jersey because, hey, the All-Star Game is here, and that's the jersey you have. That's the one you bring out. That's the one that represents the Marlins, and baseball, and all of it, to you. You do not see mourning on the faces of those wearing the Fernandez jerseys. You see excitement. You see joy. You see … Fernandez.
There was a kid, maybe five, six years old, running through the concourse of Marlins Park during the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game on Sunday. He was grabbing his father's hand, jabbering on and on about this and this and esta and esta esta esta, and they just couldn't get enough of the fact that there was so much stuff everywhere and can we have this this esta esta esta. Both him and his father were wearing Fernandez jerseys. Some day, that son, and his father, may have to reckon with Fernandez's death, and what was lost, and what it means, and what's gone forever. But then, they were just a dad and a son loving baseball and delighted to share it together. Jose Fernandez is one of the reasons for that. He's not a cautionary tale: He's just the start of something that's going to last a long, long time. This should have been his All-Star Game. But in just about every way that's meaningful for the rest of us, it still is.
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