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MIAMI – Josey would’ve been at the top of the dugout steps to deliver the first hug. He was undeniable like that. When a great moment unfolded, he wanted a piece of it, just a little scrap to make his. Nobody begrudged him. That was just him. If he wasn’t the center of attention, he would make sure he was in its orbit.
And this – this was a moment. This was surreal. This was pain and sadness and the suffocating feeling of loss abating, if only for the five seconds it took the ball to fly off Dee Gordon’s bat and land 377 feet away. This was a man in tears as he rounded the bases, in embrace after embrace as he reached his teammates in the dugout, who couldn’t believe what they’d seen. This was perfect, which felt so incongruous, because everything else was anything but.
This was the unthinkable and the unbelievable – Jose Fernandez, the Miami Marlins’ wunderkind, gone after a tragic boating accident, and Dee Gordon, his friend, his teammate, his brother, a wisp of a man with eight career home runs to his name, launching his ninth in the Marlins’ first at-bat since the news shattered their world.
All of baseball grieved Monday, and it was the Marlins’ duty to guide the sport through the first step of healing, which seemed unfair. They themselves didn’t know how to do this. Their worlds were numb. This was Roberto Clemente and Lyman Bostock and Nick Adenhart and Oscar Taveras rolled into one – the charismatic Latin superstar, the hyperachieving young star, the ubertalented right arm, the unfettered potential. Josey was everything. This was too cruel to be real.
“Every time I see his number, his name, I keep hearing his voice,” Gordon said. “Honestly, selfishly, I wanted him to say, ‘I got y’all.’ I keep waiting on that moment.”
He isn’t coming back. Gordon started steeling himself to that Monday, when he showed up and slipped on a T-shirt that said RIP, with Fernandez, on the mound, head looking down, representing the I. On a field of black-jerseyed Marlins during batting practice, Gordon, in head-to-toe white, looked like an angel.
Eventually, he slipped on Fernandez’s No. 16 jersey, like the rest of his teammates. It was everywhere Monday – on the field, in the stands, permeating the minds of everyone in the sport. For one night, everyone was Jose Fernandez.
The emotion of it all overwhelmed them. They cried during a team meeting before batting practice. They cried during BP. They cried in the clubhouse before the game. They cried during a glorious trumpet version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” that played over a video montage filled with pictures of a smiling Fernandez. They cried during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” delivered by a group of kids who hit every note. They cried when the New York Mets, ostensibly their opponents, broke protocol and came over to give them hugs. They cried when they stood around the pitcher’s mound, grabbed dirt and rubbed it on their pant legs, just like Josey would’ve. They cried in the field. And the especially cried during Dee Gordon’s at-bat.
First Gordon, a left-handed hitter, stepped into the right-handed batter’s box, an homage to his friend. “He loved to hit as much as he loved to pitch,” Gordon said. “I thought that was just my way of showing him that, ‘I love you. I miss you. I’m always going to miss you.’ ”
Gordon took a ball and switched to the other side of the box. He stared at another ball. Then Bartolo Colon left an 85-mph fastball in the middle of the strike zone. Gordon deposited it in the upper deck of right field in Marlins Park. Tears welled immediately. About the time he rounded second base, Gordon’s legs started to jelly. One of the fastest men in baseball needed an eternity to round the bases.
“It seemed like it took forever,” Gordon said. “I was just trying to go back to my teammates as fast as possible, and I couldn’t get there. I was just wondering why he wasn’t on the top of the steps cheering for me.”
When Gordon crossed home plate, he tapped his heart twice and pointed to the sky. First he hugged Marcell Ozuna, then Martin Prado, then Barry Bonds, then Christian Yelich, then Giancarlo Stanton, then manager Don Mattingly, then everyone else in the dugout. Only one hug was missing.
It would’ve been bountiful on a night like Monday. The Marlins pummeled Colon for seven runs. Fernandez would have been dancing and chirping and doing all the things that made him everyone’s favorite little brother. He lived for baseball, for nights like this. “We were hitting balls from underwater pretty much,” Stanton said. “Our eyes were full of water, and the numbers were still there. We found a way to do it, all together.”
Together. That was the only way they would survive Monday. After A.J. Ramos locked down the final out of a 7-3 victory, the Marlins gathered around the mound and put their arms over one another’s shoulders. The stadium went silent. The Marlins unlocked their arms, took their hats off and tossed them on the mound. Then they walked off the field, but not before Mattingly bent over and kissed the pitching rubber.
This was his way of saying goodbye on a night everyone tried to do the same. Gordon said he didn’t know how he played, but Mattingly understood.
“It’s their only safe place,” he said.
For three hours, 25 minutes, the baseball field cocooned them from their despair and brought them together. That, they’re beginning to understand, is the only way they’ll survive the coming days, weeks, months, years, too. This isn’t going away, this emptiness, this feeling almost like a phantom limb, where you’re sure it’s there, positive, until you realize the truth. Josey won’t be at the top of the dugout steps ever again.
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