We’ve been told what the proverbial “American Dream” is a lot more often lately — that’s one of the byproducts of living through a presidential election year.
Those messages resonated with me four years ago, but they seem empty this time around. That has nothing to do with the messengers or personal callousness or lack of interest. I just know what the American Dream is now.
In 2013, I first saw it up close. It had a 98 mile-per-hour fastball and an enrapturing personality.
I was lucky enough to have known Jose Fernandez. He was, and always will be, the American Dream to me.
Fernandez, who died early Sunday morning in a boat accident, was a spectacular pitcher. It’s sad that we’ll never see what tremendous heights he surely would have reached in his profession.
But Fernandez was a spectacular person, too. He had an energy to him — a positivity that you couldn’t fend off. Losing that is the true tragedy.
We all knew the source of Fernandez’s positivity — he tried to defect from his native Cuba three times as a teenager, only to fail. He spent a few months in a Cuban prison after one failed defection, a 15-year-old among grown men and hardened criminals.
He got out. He tried again.
The fourth defection was successful, but it wasn’t easy: Cuba to Mexico, Mexico to Texas. On the first leg, Fernandez’s mother fell out of the boat and he dove into the water to save her. In Mexico, their bus to the border was robbed. They crossed into the U.S. by foot. No one could call that journey easy.
From there, the immigrant kid who didn’t know enough English to get around only had to assimilate to a new way of life in a new country.
He did all of that because he wanted to pitch in the Major Leagues.
It was hard, but like so many things Fernandez did, he made it look easy.
Fernandez played baseball with a fire that even today is rare to see. He treated every regular-season contest like it was Game 7 of the World Series and every at-bat like his life depended upon it, despite the fact that he, more than perhaps anyone in baseball, should have known that it didn’t.
To watch him in a groove was to be transfixed. Few pitchers in modern baseball history oozed more confidence, charisma, and power than Fernandez, and when he was in control of all of his pitches, he looked invincible. The kid had swagger, and it was 100 percent earned.
To watch Fernandez work a room — whether at a charity event or a clubhouse after a game, win or loss, was equally engrossing. It was a different kind of swagger on display in those situations — one that pulled in anyone within a 50-foot radius. The man shared a clubhouse with Giancarlo Stanton, a colossus of a human with charisma coming out of every pore of his body, but there was no question that in that room, Fernandez had the most gravity.
Fernandez wasn’t perfect, but if you knew him you’d have a hard time believing that he wasn’t, either on the diamond or off the field. Even the most cynical baseball writers loved Jose — that’s a rare, if not utterly unique, gift.
Fernandez was a force of nature, and it’s hard to imagine a world without him.
The kid from Cuba was lucky to be a Major League pitcher, but those who knew him were the real lucky ones.