From the instant they saw the ball leave his hand with the first pitch in his major-league debut, which happened to be against them, to the moment they heard the shocking news Sunday morning, the Mets always knew Jose Fernandez was extra special. So they were determined to honor him.
They honored him by taping a replica Fernandez jersey to their dugout wall. They honored him more by just playing. Playing as hard as they possibly could.
When you are a ballplayer, that is how you handle things. Even when being at the ballpark makes you feel 10 times worse because everything in it reminds you of the smiling face of the 24-year-old Marlins ace who was killed early yesterday in a boating accident. You play your heart out. Sunday was a really tough day and Monday night will be tougher because they will be in Miami to face the Marlins, in a game Fernandez was supposed to start.
“We have a job to do,” Terry Collins said after his team did just about everything it set out to do: sustaining its wild-card hopes, saying a fond so long (at least for now) to Citi Field and trouncing the Phillies, 17-0.
Everyone in the organization knows how tough it is for ballplayers to lose anyone in their fraternity, let alone one of the most popular. They know how Fernandez patted opponents on the back every time he saw them on the field before a game — and he made it a point to see them every day. They know how painful it is to lose a life that had so much life left in it.
When Collins and his coaches watched the news Sunday morning, the consensus was, he said, “This is one that just hits you in the stomach.” Jose Reyes, an ebullient soul who played with Fernandez in Miami, could not get himself to speak with reporters before or after the game. One can only imagine how he and his teammates will feel Monday night.
“These guys have problems off the field like everybody. They have arguments and traffic tickets and bills to pay,” Collins said. “But when they walk through those doors, it’s kind of a safe rim for them. That’s where their talents play. Today, their talents had to come out because it was going to be a tough day. They came out and responded.”
Yoenis Cespedes did not know Fernandez well, but respected the heck out of him as a kindred spirit. The two of them escaped from Cuba (Fernandez needed four tries). Once Jeff Wilpon had the replica jersey made, Cespedes took it upon himself to tape it up in the dugout. Like everyone else on the club, he knows Monday night’s game will be one of the toughest games of the year.
“I can tell you that we’re going to be taking the jersey with us and we’re going to be putting it up again,” the slugger said through a translator. “We want him to know that we’re still thinking of him and that we’re in his town and on his field.”
Players play. Bobby Murcer delivered a game-winning single hours after he delivered the eulogy for Thurman Munson in 1979. I remember being at the Indians’ opener in 1993, their first home game after two teammates were killed in a boating accident. Players gave a thumbs-up to the sky, telling Steve Olin and Tim Crews everything would be OK.
Brandon Nimmo, a Mets rookie short on experience and long on faith, said Sunday was a reminder of how fragile life is and what a privilege it is to do what they do. “Sometimes,” he said, “putting things in perspective can take the pressure and stress off.”
Fernandez always seemed to embrace the privilege and shrug off the stress. The Mets will tip their caps the best way they know how. “In honor of him,” Collins said, “we’re going to go out and play the game right.”