Jose Fernandez's Death Takes Mark Shapiro Back to 1993
Shapiro was with Cleveland when Indians pitchers Tim Crews and Steve Olin died in a boating accident in 1993. The Blue Jays' president, and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, spoke about the death of Jose Fernandez, the Marlins' 24-year-old ace.
Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
Shortly before batting practice on Sunday morning, all conversation stopped in the Blue Jays' clubhouse. Every face turned to a TV. Authorities in Florida were addressing the media about a tragic boating accident.
Jose Fernandez, a baseball star, and two of his friends had been killed. Beyond its passionate rivalries, baseball is an enormous, tight-knit family. Fernandez was a brother. The family is in mourning.
"It's terrible," said Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. "You don't even know what to say. I found myself already today just sitting around thinking about it because it can really happen to anybody in this locker room, to anybody's family."
By and large, baseball players are young men, many with young children. Their ages and extraordinary talents can make them feel invincible. Death seems remote, almost abstract.
On Sunday morning, it hit home, and hard. Fernandez was a defector from Cuba at 15 who became a magnificent pitcher for the Miami Marlins. By all accounts, he was beloved by everyone who knew him. He was zealous in his work but a blithe spirit as well.
Five days before the accident, Fernandez announced on Instagram that his girlfriend was pregnant. He was 24 when the boat hit a jetty in the dark near Miami Beach.
His death took Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro back to 1993, when he was 25 and relatively new to a junior job in baseball operations with the Cleveland Indians. During spring training that year, two Cleveland pitchers, Tim Crews and Steve Olin, were killed when the boat Crews was driving struck a pier in the dark. A third pitcher, Bob Ojeda, survived.
"You get a lump in your throat and a pit in your stomach," Shapiro said Sunday as he recalled that awful day. "It's a perspective blast."
Olin was married with a three-year-old and seven-month-old twins when he died. Crews and his wife had three kids.
"I was young, so when you're as young as I was, you're not thinking those things ever have a chance of happening," Shapiro said, echoing the thoughts of 25-year-olds everywhere.
When he played for Colorado, Tulowitzki faced Fernandez nine times. Fernandez won eight of those battles. On one occasion in 2013, Tulowitzki scorched a line drive that Fernandez somehow snared, leaving Tulowitzki staring in awe.
"Did you catch that?" Tulowitzki said.
Fernandez replied with a nod and a big smile.
"I knew Jose basically liked to have fun with the game," Tulowitzki said. "I was surprised that he caught it. I knew he was a good dude obviously when he gave that smile back and said, 'I did.' That's something I'll always remember."
Tulowitzki did not know Fernandez well, but they chatted occasionally during batting practice. Tulowitzki liked him. So did everyone else, it seems.
"I remember his family always being there when he was pitching," Tulowitzki said. "They would be out there for BP. I'm sure that family's upside down right now. I feel for them deeply. It's just terrible."
The baseball family is unique. It is somewhat akin to the military or police service, in which solidarity reigns and breeds an ethos that says no outsider can possibly understand the challenges its members face. But baseball is different because its many roads continually intersect and everybody knows everybody. If there are six degrees of separation for the rest of us, baseball people narrow theirs to one or two.
Major League Baseball still has a laughable rule that says "players of opposing teams shall not fraternize at any time while in uniform." It is ignored, of course, as anyone knows after watching batting practice for the first time. Among baseball folks, fraternization is fundamental, as inborn as breathing.
Which is one reason the death of Jose Fernandez hurt so much.
"It's just one of those moments that just reminds you that when you live in close quarters with people for 183 days and spring training that in a lot of ways, this becomes your family," Shapiro said.
"You lean on people more than you think. You know there are stronger leaders than you ever knew, and there's greater comfort being with each other than with anybody else. It's a reminder that the clubhouse is your home and the team is your family, and that's the best way to kind of get through things."
That March day in 1993 had a profound impact on Shapiro. He was just becoming immersed in baseball culture, but the death of a player was certainly not part of it. Then, suddenly, it was. Two Cleveland players were dead and another, Ojeda, was seriously injured.
"It took him a very long time, and it created a lot of challenges within his life, not just playing baseball but just living his life," Shapiro said.
I asked Shapiro how the Cleveland organization responded to that tragedy.
"The first thing you do is just bring people together and make sure that everybody has the right support," he said. "Baseball's one of those games that is unforgiving in the sense that it keeps moving and keeps going. And there's a comfort to that, but there's also a cruelty to that. We all deal with that, whether it's kids being born, family members lost. It keeps moving. It's a hard thing to get past something that hits so close to home for a team or an organization."
The Blue Jays held a moment of silence for Fernandez on Sunday. Then they moved on and played a baseball game, skipped past the sad silence and back into the business of a pennant race. Tragedy is everywhere these days, and in the head-spinning swirl of what used to be called the news cycle, the death of Fernandez will soon fade from public consciousness.
Within the family, healing will take longer.
"This is the human side that you tend to forget, particularly people kind of watching from a distance, you tend to forget that these guys who do superhuman things for three hours a day are just human beings and are just people," Shapiro said.
"I think it reminds all of us what's most important. Everybody probably goes home and pays a little more attention to their loved ones. Everybody deals with a loss a little quicker and then you get back to work. That's the nature of the world that we live in. We all go back to work, regardless of the magnitude of the tragedy. It's hard to do."
Going back to work, especially if one is surrounded by supportive friends, can be a helpful distraction. But anyone who has suffered such a loss knows that grief dies hard, especially when you're alone in the night.
That's what the close family of Jose Fernandez must face now. His larger family—his baseball family—will undoubtedly help to ease their pain.