The sad news arrived over the weekend in a series of booms. First, the thunderclap news that Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez and two others had died in a boating accident in the early hours of Sunday morning in Miami Beach. Then the follow-up word that rumbled in slowly at first, in the wait for confirmation, that golf legend Arnold Palmer had died that afternoon in a Pittsburgh hospital.
Their careers were very different, but there is a place where they cross. And it’s at the intersection of what could have been and what came true.
Fernandez was only 24, and he had a baby girl on the way with his girlfriend. Anytime anyone dies that young, what we mourn along with their death are the infinite possibilities that are lost.
What might Fernandez have become? How great would he have been? How long before all the glowing prophecies about him came true? And how remarkable would that have been, given the backstory of Fernandez trying four times before successfully escaping Cuba for the United States?
Teammates said he would light up the Marlins clubhouse — not just radar guns — every day he walked into the stadium. Opponents said the same.
“When you watch kids playing Little League … that’s the joy that Jose played with — and the passion he felt about playing,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said.
There are no “what ifs” in Palmer’s case. The sports world was changed and lifted up for the better because of his presence. The same can be said of the other legends who died earlier this year: the incomparable Muhammad Ali, hockey great Gordie Howe, iconic women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, basketball Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond and tennis bard Bud Collins, to name a few.
There was something about all of them that just had a way of crawling into your mind and heart and then not letting go. Sometimes it’s the way greats have had to invent themselves that separates them. That was certainly true of Palmer and Ali and Summitt, albeit for vastly different reasons. All of them were originals. Ali’s outspokenness on matters of race and war was the precursor for the sort of protests and expressions of social consciousness sweeping sports today. Summitt was a pioneer who fought sexism and won. Like the others, Thurmond and Howe epitomized excellence over time, another requisite for the sort of all-timer status that Palmer earned and Fernandez might have achieved.
There is an eloquence in all of their examples, and quite often it had to do with things as fundamental as the power of belief and the refusal to bow to convention. As Ali once put it, “Impossible is just a word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary.
“Impossible is nothing.”
Whereas the charisma of Palmer’s great rival, Jack Nicklaus, emanated largely from his magnificent game and vise-grip concentration — he had that forbidding game face that seemed like it could make the flags atop the flagsticks go still — Palmer’s appeal was his lopsided smile, his swashbuckling grip-it-and-rip-it style and his quirky homemade swing, which you will never find in any instructional book. He liked to chat up galleries and would beam openly at good shots, as if every tournament had just turned into the time of his life.
Palmer turned 87 just 16 days before he died Sunday afternoon from heart complications, and Nicklaus said he sounded “great” when he called him on his birthday. Along with South Africa’s Gary Player, the other member of the “Big Three,” they were rivals throughout their careers and friends to the end.
In a statement, Nicklaus said he was “shocked” Palmer is gone, adding, “We just lost one of the incredible people in the game of golf and in all of sports. Arnold transcended the game of golf. He was more than a golfer or even great golfer. He was an icon. He was a legend. Arnold was someone who was a pioneer in his sport. He took the game from one level to a higher level, virtually by himself.”
He was also a man who never forgot where he came from despite picking up the nickname “The King” and millions of followers known as “Arnie’s Army.”
Palmer wasn’t one of golf’s trust-fund babies, born into privilege. His father, Deacon, was a greenskeeper before rising to club pro at their little Latrobe Country Club, which sat about 45 miles east of Pittsburgh. And Arnie — who grew up around the course, and grew strong from manual labor of helping his dad at work — never left the area completely, even after he became a pro sensation and the first marketing powerhouse the sports world had ever seen. After turning pro in 1954 (seven years before Nicklaus), he won 62 PGA Tour titles and seven majors, including Masters crowns in 1958, ’60, ’62 and ’64, in a career that spanned five decades.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem captured it perfectly in a statement Sunday, saying, “It is not an exaggeration to say there would be no modern-day PGA Tour without Arnold Palmer. There would be no PGA Tour Champions [Senior Tour] without Arnold Palmer. There would be no Golf Channel without Arnold Palmer. … The fact that his popularity never waned more than a quarter-century after his last competitive victory speaks volumes …”
Fernandez’s career lasted only three seasons, and two of them were troubled by injuries. But, much like Palmer, who won his first title within his first year on tour, Fernandez was an electric talent. He was a two-time All-Star and won rookie of the year honors with the Marlins in 2013.
Off the field, his status as a Cuban refugee who didn’t succeed in fleeing for America until his fourth attempt, and only after he’d already been imprisoned once before he finally did escape at age 15, resonated deeply in Miami. Even people who didn’t care much about baseball knew about him, or the story of how he leaped into the water on one of those failed attempts to save someone who had fallen out of the boat.
“I dove to help a person not thinking who that person was. Imagine when I realized it was my own mother [Maritza],” Fernandez later told the Miami Herald. “If that does not leave a mark on you for the rest of your life, I don’t know what will.”
The mark it all left on him was gratitude. A perspective about what’s important in life. An irrepressible sense of joy. Even Lorenzo Veloz, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman who had to deliver details about Fernandez’s death, said this was personal because, “[Fernandez] was a pillar to our community. He was involved in everything that he could be to give back.
“I had the experience of talking to him several times — down-to-earth, great person — I’m sorry, I’m getting goosebumps right now,” Veloz added. “It’s really hitting home and it’s horrible.”
Among the many other heartbreaks that trail Fernandez’s death is the last time he pitched on Thursday, as he and his girlfriend had just found out that their coming baby was a girl. He posted a photo on Instagram saying, “I’m excited where this journey is going to take us. #familyfirst.” Then he pitched the Marlins to a victory that he later told teammates was the best game he had ever thrown in his life. Which is saying something.
“The magnanimity of his personality transcended culture, religion and race — I mean, it just did,” said Marlins president David Samson, one of the many team members who could barely stammer their way through Sunday’s news conference to honor Fernandez because they were so visibly shaken. “His story is representative of a story of hope, and of love and of faith, and no one will ever let that story die.”
In their grief, the Marlins canceled Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Braves. No one had the heart to play.
Everyone will swing back to work Monday in golf and in baseball. But back to normal? No. No way.