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.

 

Remembering Roger Gill, the Marlins usher with a Giants heart

Somehow, Roger Gill got away with it.

A long-time usher at the Miami Marlins clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium, Gill would bundle up on the chilly mornings in the early days of spring training in his favorite jacket.

A San Francisco Giants jacket.Ball dude

“Don’t tell, Jeffrey,’’ he would often say to me — only half joking — referring to Jeffrey Loria, the Marlins owner known for strict team etiquette.

When the Marlins open their spring training camp today, there will be a noticeable void outside the team’s clubhouse. Gill passed away unexpectedly Feb. 2. He was 74.

He was looking forward to what would have been his 10th year working with the team in Jupiter when one day in late January he started experiencing stomach pain and shortness of breath, said Sue, Roger’s wife of 37 years.

It got worse in the early morning hours of Feb. 1 and he went to the emergency room. He was told he’d suffered a heart attack earlier in the week. His condition deteriorated throughout the day.

Of course, Gill wore a Giants shirt and Marlins jacket to the emergency room that day, which caught the attention of at least one doctor.

“The specialist said, ‘I’m a little confused. What’s the Marlins jacket doing on the chair?’ He said, ‘I work as a Marlins during spring training but I’m really a Giants fan at heart,’’’ Sue recalled.

Gill, whose family rooted for the old New York Giants, was a fixture at Roger Dean Stadium. His “office” was a metal folding chair just outside the glass doors to the Marlins offices.

His main job was to keep fans away from restricted areas, but he often offered directions and advice on the best spots to see players. If he wasn’t deep into a crossword puzzle, he was quick to open the office doors for arriving officials, media — even fans who asked to use to the restroom.

Outfielder Cody Ross and manager Fredi Gonzalez were among the Marlins who would greet Gill by name as they arrived every morning. Once in a while, the kid in him would come out and he’d snag an autograph.

When spring training ended, Gill’s baseball work wasn’t over.

Roger Gill, as a San Francisco Giants Ball Dude, talking to Marlins trainer Sean Cunningham in 2011
Roger Gill, as a San Francisco Giants Ball Dude, talking to Marlins trainer Sean Cunningham in 2011

He finagled his way into getting a part-time job for the San Francisco Giants as a Ball Dude – a guy who sits on the filed on a folding chair and retrieves foul balls. He would make one trip to San Francisco each year, often for a Marlins series, and dress up in a Giants uniform.

He was mentioned a few times during the games by Marlins television broadcasters. And for his pay, the Giants gave him credits to purchase souvenirs.

“He would get on the internet and see which hat or shirt he could buy. He was like a little kid,’’ Sue said.

Nothing matched the excitement he felt a few months ago, Sue said, when the Marlins hired their new hitting coach – Barry Bonds.

“He had so many Barry Bonds books, He’d ask me, Sue, which one do you think I should ask him to sign?’ I said, ‘I don’t know if Barry Bonds signs.’ He said, “Well, I’m going to try.’’’

When Ichiro Suzuki arrived last spring, Gill was asked to make sure autograph seekers didn’t get too unruly.

Palm Beach Post reporter Joe Capozzi with Roger Gill at the Willie Mays Statue in San Francisco.
Palm Beach Post reporter Joe Capozzi with Roger Gill at the Willie Mays Statue in San Francisco.

“He said, ‘I’d let them sign for a while and when it was overwhelming I’d say that’s enough.’ He said, ‘I might have to do that with Barry Bonds,’’’ Sue recalled.

By the middle of January, Gill had arranged his Barry Bonds books and photos at his North Palm Beach home for preparation to take to Roger Dean Stadium.

“He had them all in a pile ready to go,’’ Sue said.

“Roger touched a lot of lives. He was a good and gentle man. He always did the next right thing. My heart will heal eventually, but right now it’s pretty broken.’’

The Marlins will pay tribute to Gill in their game programs during spring training. There’s also a chance the team will erect a plaque at their offices in Jupiter.

“Roger is missed,’’ said Mike Bauer, the stadium’s general manager. “He really made an impact with the Marlins.’’

Fans cry foul as Marlins block prime spring training autograph spot

For 13 years, the place to be for local autograph-seekers during spring training was the sidewalk outside the Miami Marlins clubhouse building at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter.

Look close: That's a mesh screen across the gate where Marlins fans used to gather to collect autographs.
Look close: That’s a mesh screen across the gate where Marlins fans used to gather to collect autographs.

Fans could reach through the bars of an aluminum gate along the team parking lot, allowing them to hand baseballs and photographs to Josh Beckett, Giancarlo Stanton and other Marlins players as they arrived for workouts in the morning and departed in the afternoon.

Those up-close-and-personal days are over.

When the Marlins open camp Friday, fans will not have access to the sidewalk in front of the building. They will be blocked at the entrance where Avenue A meets Stadium Drive.

If any fans manage to sneak by, they will find the gate covered by a mesh screen, recently installed to block anyone from reaching through the gates.

A Marlins official said the new “control mechanisms” are meant for the safety of young fans, who sometimes wander into the path of a car in their zest to collect a signature.

But fans are crying foul. They say the new measures go against what spring training is supposed to be about — the one place where they can get the kind of access to players rarely afforded in the regular season.

Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich in 2014. That gate is now covered by a mesh screen.
Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich in 2014. That gate is now covered by a mesh screen.

“They put that up to keep the millionaires away from the fans,’’ said Rich Reeves of Atlanta.

He might be right. According to people familiar with the situation, some players last year complained to team officials about the same “autograph brokers” – adults with bags full of baseballs and bats — who would set up on lawn chairs behind the fences at 5 a.m. every day to get signatures.

Ichiro was the big draw last spring, attracting fans who would gather four deep against the fence. With all-time home run king Barry Bonds joining the team as hitting coach this year, the Marlins decided to restrict access, the sources said.

But local baseball fans say the Marlins have had big-name stars in the past without any problems.

“I don’t understand why after all of these years they’re doing this now,’’ said Richie Nestro of Jupiter.mesh 3

“This ballpark used to be real fan-friendly. I used to bring my grandson. He got to get close to Giancarlo and all the players. Now, by putting up this fence, that’s out the window.’’

On Friday, fans will see a temporary barrier. But crews have already removed two palm trees to make way for a permanent sliding gate that will be installed in March, said Marlins vice president Claude Delorme.

“We were having lot of issues with people and kids going into the parking lot as players were backing out their cars last year. We wanted to take everything out of the parking lot. This is really a safety issue for us and a control mechanism,’’ he said.

“The last thing we want is to wait for an incident to happen and then say ‘we should have’ (done something to prevent it).’’

At the request of new Marlins manager Don Mattingly, fans will also be blocked from the two practice fields closest to the clubhouse, Fields 2 and 3. The sidewalks along the other four fields, known as “The Quad” near Frederick Small Road, will be open to fans.

Marlins pitcher Henderson Alvarez in 2014
Marlins pitcher Henderson Alvarez in 2014

“Mattingly asked us to look into it so we could better control the transition (of players) from field to field during the workouts,’’ Delorme said.

Fans will still have plenty of access for autographs, he said.

“I know there’s a few people who have expressed concern but they can still get to the players as they’re arriving. They will have access to players as they are going to the field for the game,’’ he said.

But fans say it’s unfair to restrict access to the prime autograph spot — the gate by the player lot.

“I just don’t get the point, after all these years, closing it off now,’’ said Adam Alexander of West Palm Beach.

“My son is 9. He was looking forward to coming to get autographs. He’s disappointed.’’

The access restrictions aren’t the only changes at Roger Dean Stadium this spring.gate

The ballpark has gotten rid of the popular grass berm in right field where fans could pay $15 to $20 to sit on the grass. It has been replaced with a 136-seat capacity Bullpen Club section, where tickets range from $52 to $60.

All of the changes are prompting some fans to say they will abandon Jupiter next year and spend time instead at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the new spring training home of the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals south of 45th Street in West Palm Beach.

“They’re turning off a lot of fans,’’ Nestro said.

“And a lot of people don’t even know about (the restricted access) yet. Wait till they show up in a few days. They’re going to be shocked.’’

Saying goodbye to a baseball brother

We said goodbye to our baseball brother Thursday night.

For 15 years, we vigorously competed with each other every day to be the first to break news.

With Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez at Shea Stadium in New York City, (L-R) Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald, Joe Capozzi of The Palm Beach Post, Joe Frisaro of MLB.com and Juan Rodriguez of the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
With Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez in 2008 before the last game at Shea Stadium in New York City, (L-R) Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald, Joe Capozzi of The Palm Beach Post, Joe Frisaro of MLB.com and Juan Rodriguez of the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Along the way, we forged a brotherhood of sorts – an unusual one considering that we were four baseball writers of different ages and backgrounds working for different media outlets.

I started covering the Marlins for The Palm Beach Post in 1999, roughly the same time that Clark Spencer started covering the team for the Miami Herald and Juan Rodriguez for the Sun Sentinel. Joe Frisaro came on the beat for mlb.com in 2002.

Until June of 2013, when I moved from the Marlins beat to the Palm Beach Post’s Metro Department, the four of us were a family of sorts for eight months every year. From spring training in February to the final game of the season in September or October, we often spent more time together than we did with our own families.

We sat within an arm’s reach of each other in the press box, through yawners and thrillers, no-hitters and World Series games and, until the team moved to Marlins Park in 2012, countless rain delays. We participated in pre-game and post-game interviews with more than 10 years of managers and players – from Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett to Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez.

Juan Rodriguez was proud to wear a pink Breast Cancer Awareness -- worn every year by Major League Baseball Players -- during a Marlins game in Los Angeles in 2013.
Juan Rodriguez was proud to wear a pink Breast Cancer Awareness band — worn every year by Major League Baseball Players — during a Marlins game in Los Angeles in 2013.

We often took the same flights to cities where the Marlins played. We usually shared taxi and subway rides to ballparks, along with too many lunches and dinners to remember.

Somehow, we managed to stay professional and friendly with each other, too – something that doesn’t always happen among competing beat writers in other baseball markets.

Each of us brought a peculiar personality to the mix, and I am convinced that the key ingredient to our unique chemistry was Juan Rodriguez.

He was the most quiet member of our group and probably the most talented — and the most humble. He had a gentle, laid-back demeanor that allowed him to develop key sources, consistently find fresh angles and work gracefully under the most intense deadline pressure.

Juan was the youngest in our group, too, which made it all the more tragic when we watched him collapse in the media room at the annual MLB Winter Meetings in Nashville in December 2012 – the first sign we had of what would result in a diagnosis of Grade IV glioblastoma multiforme.

Juan had surgery the next day in Nashville to remove a tumor from his brain. He was given six months, but he eventually returned to the beat and lived another three years.

Juan Rodriguez and retired Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell in 2013 at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter.
Juan Rodriguez and retired Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell in 2013 at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter.

Not once did we ever hear him complain “why me?”

He died Monday at the age of 42, leaving behind his wife, Tiffany, and their two children, Laura, 14, and Ryan, 12.

We gathered Thursday night to say goodbye at a Celebration of Life Service that served as a testament to how much he was loved and respected by friends, colleagues and the people he wrote about as a beat writer for more than 15 years.

More than 100 people attended the service at Christ the Rock Community Church in Cooper City, including Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who knew Juan as a Marlins coach and manager. Fredi flew in from Atlanta to pay his respects.

Also in attendance: Marlins general manager Mike Hill, assistant general manager Brian Chattin, former Marlins GM Larry Beinfest, retired Marlins traveling secretary Bill “Boomer” Beck, Marlins vice president P.J. Loyello, the staff from the Marlins media relations department and Marlins radio play-by-play announcer Glenn Geffner.

Mike Berardino, a former Sun Sentinel baseball writer who spent several years covering the Marlins with Juan, flew in from Minnesota to deliver a eulogy.

Outside the Marlins clubhouse at Sun Life Stadium, rapper Pitbull is flanked by (L-R) Clark Spencer, Juan Rodriguez and Joe Capozzi.
Outside the Marlins clubhouse at Sun Life Stadium, rapper Pitbull is flanked by (L-R) Clark Spencer, Juan Rodriguez and Joe Capozzi.

Other speakers included Sun Sentinel columnist Dave Hyde (who wrote a wonderful tribute to Juan) and Juan’s three long-time Marlins beat-writer brothers.

Most speakers walked to the podium alone. Clark, Joe and I walked up together and stood together. We were surrounded by Juan, whose image covered the front of the altar in dozens of photographs – portraits, pictures with his wife and two children, and images with his baseball family.

There were tears, but also plenty of laughter. Juan would have wanted it that way.

His legacy will live on in everyone he touched, including the beat writers who forged a unique baseball brotherhood with him, because he made all of us better.

We will always miss him and we will never forget him.

 

FBI probe of hacking allegations centers on Palm Beach County spring training rivals

The St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros will be linked in Palm Beach County in two years as two of the four Major League Baseball teams that hold spring training within 15 minutes of each other.

But the FBI is already linking the teams for an entirely different reason.1998-Cardinals

The FBI and Justice Department prosecutors are looking into whether front-office officials for the Cardinals hacked into the computer networks of the Astros to steal closely guarded information about player personnel.

Jeff Luhnow
Jeff Luhnow

According to a New York Times story, law enforcement officials believe the hacking was executed by vengeful front-office employees for the Cardinals hoping to wreak havoc on the work of Jeff Luhnow, the Astros’ general manager who had been a successful and polarizing executive with the Cardinals until 2011.

The Astros won’t start training in West Palm Beach until 2017 when the team plans to start sharing a $135 million spring training complex south of 45th Street.

The Cardinals and Miami Marlins share Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter.