When Jose Fernandez pitched, anything was possible. He was young, vibrant, dominant and passionate.

He was a Rookie of the Year winner, surely a future Cy Young Award winner, a foundational piece of the Miami Marlins organization and a face of the game’s next generation.

That he died overnight Saturday is stunningly tragic.

That it was in a boating accident is utterly unspeakable.

Fernandez, 24, defected from Cuba to chase his baseball dream. It took him four tries. Once, he was caught and tossed into a Cuban prison, just a kid, 15, locked up with steely adults. The fourth attempt was successful but harrowing. His mother, Maritza, was knocked off the boat by a wave, and Fernandez leapt into the ocean and saved her from drowning.

This is American Dream stuff—the best of our cultural melting pot, the part where it was supposed to be smooth sailing for Fernandez from here on out.

Instead, a young life was extinguished far too soon.

And at the most exciting time of the baseball year, with just a week’s worth of drama and cheers left before the calendar turns to October and the volume cranks even higher, the games have been interrupted, and we will pause for a wrenching moment of silence.

Leaves fall, seasons change, but this brings you to your knees.

You think of Thurman Munson and Roberto Clemente and their fatal plane crashes. You’re brought back to the spring of 1993, when Cleveland Indians pitchers Tim Crews and Steve Olin were killed during spring training in a boating accident on Florida’s Little Lake Nellie.

There is no preparation for death when it forces its way into our lives as an unexpected intruder. It shows up unannounced, and we’re reminded once again that all the first-pitch ceremonies and full-count offerings and raucous tailgating can turn hollow by sunrise tomorrow. Maybe it hits us especially hard in the sports world because this is where we turn to forget, even momentarily, the latest difficulties we’re having at work or the most recent absurdity in a world that seems to go more off balance by the day.

Fernandez last pitched Tuesday. He threw a gem against the Washington Nationals, cutting down 21 consecutive hitters en route to striking out 12 and allowing only three hits in eight innings. The Marlins have been on the periphery of the National League wild-card chase all summer, and Fernandez’s dominance helped keep their faintly flickering hopes alive.

Because he was little more than two years removed from Tommy John surgery, the Marlins also continued to keep a close watch over him. He had thrown 111 taxing pitches, and the Marlins came to a compromise while debating whether that would be his final start of the season: They would give him another, but they would also give him an extra day’s rest in the process and push that start back to Monday.

Had he stayed on his regular schedule and started Sunday, he probably would have been home resting Saturday night instead of with friends on that fatal boat ride.

But that’s how fragile life is, and it is moments like this that drive that head-shaking fact home. One decision here. One decision there. And the effects on our lives ripple like waves on the ocean.

When Fernandez won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2013, it was announced on a Monday. One day before that, his grandmother, the woman Fernandez once called “the love of my life,” had left Cuba to join Jose and his mother in Miami. Talk about sweet, must-see TV:

Since that suitable-for-framing 2013 season, Fernandez—even with significant time off—had established himself as one of the best young pitchers to come along in years.

At 16-8 with a 2.86 ERA in 29 starts this season, Fernandez at the time of his death was ranked No. 1 among all major league pitchers with a 6.2 WAR by FanGraphs.

By striking out 589 of the 1,888 batters he faced during his career, or 31.2 percent, Fernandez became the all-time leader among starting pitchers in strikeout percentage—ahead of Hall of Famers Randy Johnson (28.6 percent) and Pedro Martinez (27.7 percent).

Fernandez had so much game ahead of him, but more than that, so much joy and so much life. There were times when he angered opponents by crossing some of baseball’s silly so-called “unwritten rules,” showing too much emotion after hitting a home run against the Atlanta Braves in 2013, for example.

There also were times when he even angered his own teammates with his immaturity—a subject I wrote about in December.

But like the rest of us, no matter whether we are 24 or 54, Fernandez was a work in progress. And he played with such passion and joy that you couldn’t wait to see how that work was going to turn out.

As devastated Marlins manager Don Mattingly said during a press conference Sunday:

There was just joy with him when he played…and when he pitched, and I think that’s what the guys will say, too. As mad as he would make you with some of the stuff he would do, you’d just see that little kid that you see when you watch kids play Little League or something like that. That’s the joy that Jose played with and the passion he felt about playing. That’s what I think about.

Even more than the steady diet of strikeouts, what Fernandez leaves us with are vivid memories of that joy and that passion. The Marlins canceled their game with Atlanta on Sunday as baseball hit the pause button to mourn. It will take a long time to get over this one.

But as we all move toward tomorrow, maybe stop and think about this for a bit: If we all could inject some of that joy and passion into what we do, what a fitting tribute it would be as we pay our final respects to a man who still had so much more to do.


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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