In Miami, a Monday Night Miracle
“If y’all don’t believe in God, you might as well start,” Miami Marlins player Dee Gordon said.
“Is this heaven?” Kevin Costner’s character in Field of Dreams was famously asked on a baseball diamond.
“No,” he responds. “It’s Iowa.”
Marlins Park in Miami isn’t heaven, either, but on Monday night, it was close. After an unimaginable tragedy, God – and a beautiful man-made game called baseball – managed to temporarily lift millions out of grief.
Jose Fernandez, the brilliant 24-year-old Marlins ace who fled Cuba to pitch in a land of freedom, was killed in a boating accident early Sunday morning. The two-time All-Star’s death stunned baseball and sports fans around the world, especially in Miami’s heavily Cuban-American community.
After a full Sunday of pain and disbelief, Fernandez’s Miami teammates somehow took the field on Monday night against the New York Mets. Every single one of them wore Fernandez’s jersey, which will never be worn again by a Marlins player. The pregame ceremonies were moving and pitch perfect, particularly considering the emotional duress under which they were planned.
Following a tearful, unprecedented embrace by Marlins and Mets players around the mound where Fernandez pitched his career’s finest game less than a week earlier, an umpire said “play ball” and a baseball game began. Marlins Park, located in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, seemed eerily quiet on TV. Giancarlo Stanton, the Home Run Derby champion who resembles The Incredible Hulk up close, openly wept during the top of the first inning.
To lead off the bottom of the first, second baseman Dee Gordon, a left-handed hitter, stepped into the right-handed batter’s box wearing his late friend’s batting helmet. He took the first pitch to honor Fernandez as the crowd clapped and cheered. After composing himself, Gordon switched helmets and got into the correct batter’s box.
Two pitches later, Gordon hit a fly ball to deep right field. Incredibly, the ball carried all the way to the right field seats. It was Gordon’s first home run of the entire 2016 season.
By the time he made it around the bases, Gordon and many Marlins players and fans were crying. Even though the opposing team is in the middle of a playoff race, several New York Mets players couldn’t hide their emotions, either.
“When he was coming to home plate and tears were coming down his face, they were coming down mine, too,” Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud said after the game. “I’m pretty sure the whole world felt that emotion in that moment.”
My family recently moved to South Florida. On May 21, my wife, daughter and I drove down to Marlins Park to see my hometown Washington Nationals play in Miami. As we walked into the stadium, which had a bigger than usual crowd since Fernandez was pitching, I knew that my beloved Nats – a first place team – had almost no chance to win. Jose was that good.
When she’s old enough, I will tell my daughter why she was so lucky to have witnessed one of the 76 big league games that Jose Fernandez pitched.
After attending another Marlins-Nats game in Miami last week, I settled in at home to watch the next night’s rematch with Fernandez. During the game, I was struck by a moment captured by Fox Sports Florida’s cameras as Fernandez walked off the mound following another remarkable pitching performance. He blew a kiss to his mother, Maritza.
As many learned after Fernandez’s tragic death, a young Jose once rescued his mom from drowning as they fled Cuba. I can’t begin to imagine the heartbreak she must be feeling at this hour as she mourns the boy who saved her life and grew up to represent the hopes and dreams of so many in Cuba, Florida and beyond.
When Fernandez became a star with the Marlins, the young pitcher would remind his baseball colleagues just how lucky they were.
“He would often tell me ‘you don’t really understand what freedom is because you were born into freedom,’” Marlins president Dave Samson said during a tearful Sunday news conference.
I may not have cheered for Fernandez when he pitched, but I wept upon learning that he died. As an American, I am deeply inspired by his love for liberty. As a baseball fan, I will always be in awe of his supreme talent and unbridled enthusiasm for America’s pastime.
As a Christian, what I saw during Monday night’s game in Miami was divine. Dee Gordon’s home run – one of baseball’s most emotional moments since the weeks following the 9/11 attacks – didn’t just happen. It was supposed to happen.
“If y’all don’t believe in God, you might as well start,” Gordon said.
Tom Sileo is co-author of Fire in My Eyes and Brothers Forever, and recipient of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s 2016 General Oliver P. Smith Award for distinguished reporting. Follow him on Twitter.