MIAMI — Miami Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon had been choked up with emotion all afternoon during batting practice and warmups, so much so that he wore shades much of the time to hide the tears following the death of teammate Jose Fernandez.
But when Gordon went to the plate for his first at-bat Monday against the New York Mets, all of his emotion came to a peak when he smashed a lead-off home run into right field off right-hander Bartolo Colon.
Gordon, who normally bats left-handed, initially walked to the plate right-handed. After taking the first pitch, he switched out his helmet, which according to Fox Sports Florida was Fernandez’s batting helmet. Then, Gordon switched stances to lefty and hit his first home run of the season.
The hit ignited the Marlins, who scored seven runs in the first three innings.
Three hours before the game, the Marlins players and coaches emerged from the dugout looking like grim-faced soldiers headed for the great unknown.
Gordon wore an “RIP” shirt under his jersey during warmups in tribute to Fernandez. As he and Destin Hood hugged behind the batting cage, Ichiro Suzuki quietly tended to his stretching routine. Catching coach Brian Schneider stood with his arms folded, absent-mindedly spitting sunflower seeds, while bench coach Tim Wallach leaned against the cage and stared into space.
There was pennant-race baseball left to play, and another game beckoned, even as hearts and minds neared the breaking point.
As team president David Samson told reporters, it seemed almost too cruel for the Marlins to return to the field a day after Hernandez’s death in a boat accident at age 24. But there are few precedents for disruptions of this magnitude, so the final week of the schedule will serve as the Marlins’ road map.
“I know this seems shallow, but the show goes on,” Samson said. “We have to play today. The Marlins’ organization hasn’t had a game on Sept. 26th that mattered in many, many years. We’re not mathematically eliminated, and we’re playing a team that’s not mathematically eliminated.
“I know everyone always says this, but Jose would not want us sitting around. The fact is, we have to play today, and we’re going out there and doing the best we can as an organization with heavy hearts and an eye towards what matters most. And that’s honoring Jose, not just for today. Win or lose, it’s moving forward that matters.”
The Marlins’ Dee Gordon, right, gets a hug from hitting coach Barry Bonds after hitting a home run in the first inning of Monday’s game against the Mets. AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Monday’s pregame ceremony was filled with emotion, as the Marlins’ starting lineup circled the pitcher’s mound while “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” played softly on a trumpet and a color guard kept vigil. Pitcher Tom Koehler and several other players cried throughout the ceremony.
After the entire Mets and Marlins rosters met in the infield to shake hands, the Miami players knelt in what appeared to be a group prayer at the mound. The players followed by inscribing individual messages in the dirt for Fernandez.
As details of the boating accident that claimed the lives of Fernandez and two other men continue to surface, the forward-moving part of the equation comes a step at a time. Although no formal announcement has been made, all signs point toward Fernandez’s funeral taking place Thursday, before the Marlins leave Miami for a season-ending series in Washington. The players have expressed a desire to attend, en masse, and Samson said they’ll be on hand to celebrate and mourn their beloved teammate.
All members of the Miami Marlins will honor pitcher Jose Fernandez by wearing No. 16 jerseys in Monday’s game versus the New York Mets.
Marlins right-hander Jose Fernandez, 24, was one of three men killed when a boat overturned in Florida early Sunday. Speed is suspected to be a factor in the accident.
After the Miami players conceived the idea of wearing No. 16 jerseys in Fernandez’s honor, Samson said the Majestic Athletic apparel company opened its factory in Philadelphia on Sunday to make the jerseys and had company employees fly to Miami to deliver them to the players. The Marlins will wear patches on their jerseys in Fernandez’s honor beginning Tuesday and for the rest of the season.
Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria made some news Monday when he proclaimed that no future Marlins player will wear Fernandez’s No. 16, but Samson chose to defer to the family’s wishes before announcing other gestures to honor the pitcher.
“To me, there are about 613 steps we need to take and decisions to make, and I think we’re at No. 32,” Samson said. “There’s so much to wrap our minds around right now. There’s so much to do, and we have to be respectful of his family. There’s a 24-year-old who’s a son and a grandson who hasn’t been laid to rest yet.”
To this point, few of Fernandez’s teammates have been able to summon the composure to speak publicly. Before Monday’s game, the Marlins had a meeting of roughly 50 minutes in a closed clubhouse before taking the field, and it was left to Samson, Loria and manager Don Mattingly to shed some light on the team mindset.
Mattingly remained relatively composed for most of a 10-minute question-and-answer session in the dugout, but he broke down when recalling the time he spent mourning with Fernandez’s grandmother and mother Sunday.
Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon wore an “RIP” shirt under his jersey during warmups in tribute to teammate Jose Fernandez, who died Sunday at age 24. Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
“It took me back to a different time,” Mattingly said. “Watching Jose’s mom and grandmother yesterday reminded me of my brother who was killed at 23. I was 6 years old, and they shielded me. I wasn’t really a part of what was going on, but now I know what was going on. I could see my mom and my sister-in-law and what they were going through [all those years ago]. It was awful.”
One of the most poignant scenes before the Mets game took place early in batting practice as Fernandez’s agent, Scott Boras, wept openly in front of reporters. Boras made the cross-country flight from Los Angeles to Florida on Sunday and spent the better part of Monday with Fernandez’s grandmother, mother and the rest of his family.
Boras fondly recalled the playful interactions he had with Fernandez, whom he referred to as “Joe Fez.”
“He would call you late at night, and call you early in the morning,” Boras said. “He wanted to know so much about the ‘why.’ He was always trying to get better.”
As the Marlins try to move forward, so do their fans. Outside Marlins Park early Monday afternoon, fans continued to place wreaths, flowers, photographs and other mementos on a tribute to Fernandez. Some of them just stood and stared into space.
Pete Lombardo, a Los Angeles native who moved to South Florida in 1989, spent a long, hard day Sunday discussing Fernandez’s death with his two sons, ages 8 and 10. Lombardo recently took his boys to a Braves-Marlins game in Atlanta, and he was amazed at how freely Fernandez interacted with the crowd. After laughing and joking with fans in the outfield, Fernandez signed a baseball for the two Lombardo boys.
Lombardo has followed the Marlins since 1997, and he said he regards pitcher Dontrelle Willis as the only player who came close to exuding as much charisma as Fernandez did. He said the true magnitude of Fernandez’s loss might not sink in until the 2017 season, when the reality hits home that the Marlins’ best pitcher and goodwill ambassador is truly gone.
“This is hard for my kids to understand,” Lombardo said. “I told them yesterday, ‘We’ll remember this day for the rest of our life.’ This is our Roberto Clemente.”