The Mets-Marlins game on Sept. 26, 2016, didn’t mean anything. Sure, the Mets went on to make the playoffs as a wild card, so it was relevant to the standings. But the game was meaningless in a bigger-picture, life-or-death, what-does-baseball-really-matter-anyway way.
This was the Marlins’ first game after the death of Jose Fernandez, their teammate, friend and homegrown Cuban-American star in the de facto Cuban-American capital. I was there for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, having become the Marlins beat writer only a few months prior, and it was the craziest game I have ever covered.
In that first full day after the crash, as the Mets visited for a three-game series, the emotion in Miami and inside Marlins Park was raw. Going to the ballpark is fun, right? This was like going to a wake.
Remember that in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, all anybody knew was that Fernandez, 24, and two acquaintances had died in a middle-of-the-night boat crash off Miami Beach. There was no blame. Just sadness and shock. It wasn’t until much later that a state investigation revealed that Fernandez, drunk and with cocaine in his system, was piloting the speeding boat, complicating his story and legacy.
Out of respect for the mourning Marlins, their clubhouse was closed to the media pregame, a completely understandable move. Frankly, I didn’t want to be in there. Instead, manager Don Mattingly and a heavily crying Scott Boras — Fernandez’s agent— did group interviews in or near the dugout.
The Marlins all wore black No. 16 Fernandez jerseys. After a slow, single-trumpet “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” the Mets crossed the field to share hugs and tears with their opponents. When the Marlins huddled on the infield grass, Giancarlo Stanton — who had the contract of a leader but not necessarily the reputation of one — said: "If someone's struggling, pick them up. We're going to find a way to do this. I love you guys." First pitch came at 7:16 p.m.
The greatest can’t-make-this-up moment came in the bottom of the first, when the first swing from Miami’s first batter, Dee Gordon, resulted in a home run into the upper deck. It was an 85-mph pipeshot from Bartolo Colon and the only homer from the 170-pound Gordon all season.
In-game recollections after that are blurry. I remember Justin Bour, who is burly and not fast, finished his first career triple with a belly-flop slide, making everyone in the home dugout smile. Adam Conley, back from the disabled list that day, pitched three scoreless innings and said afterward, “That was Jose’s mound today.” The box score reveals Colon got rocked for seven runs in 2 1/3 innings and Yoenis Cespedes, Fernandez’s countrymate, went 0-for-5 in the 7-3 Marlins win.
In the postgame clubhouse, Fernandez’s locker was still intact, his belongings virtually untouched except for a lone rose tucked into the jersey he was supposed to wear during his start that night.
The most touching moment of the night came after the game — near midnight in a mostly empty stadium when the Marlins returned to the mound, beers in hand and some still wearing No. 16. With the press box’s view of the field closed, I went to an empty broadcast booth to watch the private moment from afar. I don’t know what they said, but there were a few laughs mixed in. They stayed for about 16 minutes, poured out their drinks on the dirt and walked off just as the lights went out.