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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Jose Fernandez’s death casts a shadow of grief on baseball

Members of the Kansas City Royals stand during

Members of the Kansas City Royals stand during a moment of silence to Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez before the baseball game against the Detroit Tigers, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Detroit. Fernandez was killed Sunday morning after a boat crash in Miami Beach. Photo Credit: AP / Carlos Osorio

First comes the disbelief, the praying for some kind of terrible mistake, the hope that someone so admired, so talented and so young as Jose Fernandez couldn’t possibly be taken away so soon. But shortly after the dreadful news tumbled out Sunday morning, and the confirmation that, yes, the Marlins’ inspiring ace had perished in that boat with the cratered hull, flipped on those Miami Beach rocks, the tears came next.

They streaked down the face of the distraught Marlins manager Don Mattingly, who could barely get the sentences out as he struggled to eulogize Fernandez, a pitcher everyone remembered not only for his Cy Young ability, but his pure joy just being in the ballpark. Mattingly was surrounded by his sobbing players, and flanked by David Samson, the broken team president. But what could anyone say? Words, in the wake of such a tragedy, basically fill up the frozen space, maybe provide a reason to stop from crying.

“The way Jose played, and the way he was on the field,” Samson said, “that’s how these guys can honor Jose.”

At 24, Fernandez was still a kid, not much older than the determined teenager who finally defected from Cuba on the third try — and saved his mother, who had fallen overboard, during that last successful voyage. Growing up in Tampa, as a high school pitching prodigy, Fernandez dreamed of one day pitching in the major leagues. But what he was able to do on the mound after the Marlins made him the 14th overall pick in the 2011 draft — one spot below the Mets’ selection of Brandon Nimmo that same year — probably exceeded his own imagination.

Fernandez quickly grew into one of the sport’s most brilliant young stars, a sturdy pillar for the game’s next generation, despite his career being interrupted by Tommy John surgery in 2014. He was 16-8 with a 2.86 ERA this season, and his 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings was the best ratio in the majors, proof that Fernandez’s dominance had returned in force.

Over the weekend at Citi Field, the Marlins’ decision to push back Fernandez’s next start, switching him from Sunday’s regularly scheduled turn against the Braves to Monday night for their New York rival, immediately got the Mets’ attention. Despite his infectious laughter, often spread in his own dugout as well as across the diamond, Fernandez was respected as a fierce competitor, and the Mets knew their road to a wild-card spot had become significantly more challenging by his presence.

And just like that, in the middle of the night, Fernandez was gone. The Marlins canceled Sunday’s game against the Braves, and inside their empty stadium, a solitary black cap rested atop the pitcher’s mound, a white No. 16 painted on the slope. Back in Flushing, the Mets wrestled with their own emotions — as each team did — while catching glimpses of the TV reports and somberly dressing to play a game themselves. On these days, it doesn’t matter what uniform anyone is wearing. The sense of loss hangs heavy in every clubhouse.

“This is one that just hits you in the stomach,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “He’s going to be missed. He was one of the people that bring people to the ballpark because they loved to see him play and see him perform.”

With Fernandez, he transcended even that. It was more like a gravitational pull, and the Marlins described how he affected the entire South Florida region, as well as the Cuban-American community. Former teammates flooded social media with their praise for a life cut way too short, and the overwhelming message was appreciation, grateful for the time they did get to share with Fernandez, to compete against him.

Grief of this magnitude is not something we usually associate with our sports teams, or favorite stars. And when it strikes this suddenly, to erase a brilliance everyone felt lucky to experience, just to watch Fernandez doing what he lived to do, there’s no way to process such a tragic event. We’re just left with a numb acceptance.

“Sadly, the brightest lights are often the ones that extinguish the fastest,” Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria said. “Jose left us far too soon, but his memory will endure in all of us.”

The shock from Fernandez’s passing, and the tears, are going to be around for a long while, too.

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