Dee Gordon provided the best tribute to Jose Fernandez we’re going to see in 2016, and for that matter, the best moment of 2016 in MLB, with his performance on Monday night. It wasn’t so much that he hit his first home run of a trying season on his first swing since Fernandez’s death, but the way he then ran the bases, fighting back tears for a moment, then letting them flow. It was the way he wiped his eyes and pointed to the sky, the way he then hugged so many of his coaches and teammates, none of them jubilant, none giddy, all just overcome and leaning on each other because the alternative (as it has been since Sunday morning, for so many inside and outside the Marlins organization) seemed to be to physically fall down under the weight of it all.
That moment was terrible and beautiful, everything we ask sports to be. Often, even when we ask that much of sports, they don’t provide it. Sports aren’t designed to comfort the grieving or to unite the divided or to inspire the desperate. Every so often, though, when the right people end up in the middle of sports’ peculiar dramas, those people can make sports really substantial. Gordon and his teammates (and in a less obvious way, the gracious Mets) did some of that heavy lifting Monday.
Fernandez did even more of it, though, over the last three-plus years. He embodied so many good things about baseball, about Miami, about life, and he was of staggering importance—nearly unique importance, for a player who never did pitch in the postseason or win a Cy Young or MVP award (though that could change, posthumously, this November)—to the communities to which he belonged: the community of Cuban refugees that makes up so much of South Florida’s population; the Miami community as a whole; and the troubled Marlins franchise.
Because Fernandez made an indelible, unique mark, and because he leaves a unique legacy, I want to propose a somewhat radically unique memorialization of him. I think the Marlins should rename themselves. It might be best to do so in a few years, so as not to seem callous or profiteering in the wake of Fernandez’s family’s (and the Marlins’ own) loss, but sometime down the road, the Marlins should re-title themselves the Ferns, or the Josés, or the Niños (Giancarlo Stanton called Fernandez "Niño," a nod to his child-like enthusiasm for everything from baseball itself to fireworks and flyovers).
The multi-colored "M" on their caps and the "MIAMI" across their jerseys need not change. Indeed, Fernandez’s connection to the city is why he should become a lasting image for the team. But his name, in one way or another, should replace the team’s stale sobriquet. For the huge majority of the Marlins’ existence, they have been an embodiment of all the worst things about Major League Baseball.
They exist only because the owners needed the huge fees they were able to charge for expansion franchises, in order to recoup their losses after they were caught colluding against the players in free agency. Their only proud moments were two World Series won after sneaking into the postseason as Wild Card entrants, and both of the championship teams were then cynically torn down by owners who didn’t understand the business of baseball, let alone have the patience to carry it out properly.
Their garish home park is a reminder of their owner’s skillful extortion of the municipalities who paid for it, and a symbol of that same owner’s bizarre, constant, and often ugly meddling in team affairs. They’re often accused of running large profits against minuscule payrolls despite losing records, and indeed, got into hot water with the MLBPA and the league itself less than a decade ago over their refusal to really participate in the talent market.
Fernandez, on the other hand, symbolized all the great things about the game, and even the league—and most importantly, about Miami. He had extraordinary enthusiasm and ebullience. He was loud and often intense. He was immensely talented, and knew it well. He was resilient, thoughtful, courageous, and big-hearted. Any team would be proud to call him their own. The Marlins, who have so rarely had cause to be proud of anything, should dedicate themselves more deeply than ever (now that he is, in some sense, theirs forever) to make his legacy their mission.
While Nap Lajoie was the star of the Cleveland team in the early 1900s, the team was named after him. They were the Cleveland Naps. When he left, a contest to rename the team left us with the unfortunate nickname they now use. We can reverse some of that bad karma now. While Fernandez played for the Miami team, they remained the Marlins. Now that he’s gone, they could become something new and better, without leaving an ounce of his memory behind.
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