Remembering Jose Fernandez in the snow, and the time I nearly dropped his glove

Just about every writer who has covered the Marlins over the last few years has a Jose Fernandez story. I’ve got quite a few, and the photographs to go with most of them.

Let’s start with a snow story.

Jose Fernandez, 19, on his first visit to the Marlins dugout on June 9, 2011, after the team drafted him in the first round.

Jose Fernandez, 19, on his first visit to the Marlins dugout on June 9, 2011, after the team drafted him in the first round.

It was late April 2013, a few months before I moved from the sports department to Metro, and the Marlins had just arrived in Minnesota for an interleague series at open-air Target Field. A steady snowfall forced a postponement of the first game.

In other words, the Miami Marlins got snowed out in Minneapolis.

In the visitors’ clubhouse, most players cursed the frigid conditions and bemoaned the next day’s chilly double-header. But Fernandez – who fled Cuba on a raft in 2008 – was giddy: He got to see and touch snow for the first time in his 21-year-old life.

Less than two years before the snow out, he toured the Marlins’ clubhouse at Pro Player Stadium in Miami for the first time as the team showed off their June 2011 first-round draft pick. Just 19, he grinned at every camera thrust into his face.

At spring training in 2013, he was invited to big league camp, which meant he participated in Photo Day. As he posed for a Topps photographer, he noticed me lurking a few feet away, taking photos with my iPhone.

When the photo session he ended, he walked over and asked me if I wouldn’t mind texting him the pictures I’d been taking. “I want to send them to my mother,’’ he said. He rattled off his cell phone number, then jogged away.jose-photo-day-2015

Two years later, he noticed me again lurking nearby as the Topps photographer directed him into various stances on Photo Day 2015.

“OK, Jose, take off your glove. I want you to fold your arms and look right at me,’’ photographer Steve Moore said.

Jose turned and yelled in my direction: “Yo!”

I’d been looking down at my iPhone and I looked up to see his bright orange glove flying right at me. I dropped my phone onto the grass and barely caught his glove.

When the photographer asked him to put the glove back on, Jose held out his hands, waiting for me to toss it back to him. I shook my head ‘no’ and walked the glove back to him. For a second, I thought his face wore a disappointed “are you serious?” expression, but I didn’t want to risk tossing that shiny orange glove onto the grass.
me-and-glove
One May day at Dodger Stadium, he beat the Dodgers and then opened a folding chair on the grass in front of the visitors dugout. He sat down and watched a postgame fireworks display.

My favorite Jose story might’ve been the day in February 2014 when he was walking by the bleachers on a backfield. He noticed an old man sitting down. But what caught Jose’s eyes: The man had a walking cane made out of a baseball bat.

The guy was JW Porter, a retired major league catcher who once played with the likes of Mickey Mantle and Satchel Paige. Porter, who lives in Palm Beach Gardens, also used to work as an usher at Roger Dean Stadium.

Unsolicited, Fernandez climbed up a few rows of bleachers, his cleats clickety-clacking on the aluminum. He sat down next to Porter. For the next 20 minutes, the old catcher and the young pitching phenom talked baseball.

jose-and-jw-2

JW Porter and Jose Fernandez

On June 16, 2013, before my final home game as a Marlins beat writer, I watched Jose sign autographs for fans along the third-base line near the outfield wall at Marlins Park. He patiently signed everything put in front of him — balls and hats and jerseys. I stood a few feet away taking pictures.

Suddenly he realized he needed to get back to the clubhouse. But more autograph hounds were waiting for him along the railing and on top of the dugout.

“Hey,” he said to me as we walked toward the dugout. “Ask me some questions.”jose-signs-june-2013

I quickly caught on: He didn’t want it to look like he was blowing off the fans. So, I acted as his decoy and conducted a fake interview. As we fast-paced toward the dugout, I scribbled I-can’t-remember-what into my notebook as Jose mumbled over and over to me, “Thank you, man.”

Baseball scribes have an unusual coexistence with the players they cover. Athletes get to know writers over the course of a season. But we don’t become fast pals. Most players know a writer’s purpose is to report and write the news.

Photo by Allison Williams

Photo by Allison Williams

I wasn’t close with Jose, and the interactions I’ve described shouldn’t suggest that he was any more congenial with me than he was with any other writer.

In  all honesty, I’m not sure he actually knew or remembered my name.

His tragic death on Sunday brought back memories of another painfully loss more than 50 years ago. About a month before my ninth birthday, I woke up at home in suburban Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day 1973 to news that Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente had died in a plane crash.

Jose’s untimely passing at the age of 24 hurts just as bad. Maybe more because of his off-the-field moments of joy that I was fortunate to have witnessed.

 

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