The world can be oppressive. The grim reality of it can trap us and hem us in. It makes it hard to breathe, and limits us with grief. In The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir on the passing of her husband, Joan Didion writes, “Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.” We have our routines and then grief breaks them. It’s right there in the room with us. Grief cancels baseball games, and obliterates their routine when they are played. Grief by its presence reminds us that Jose Fernandez died on the rocks at age 24. Grief gets close, and interferes with reason. Grief, Didion tells us, leads to magical thinking.
We engage in magical thinking all the time. Sometimes it is little, more imagination than actual magic. We imagine we’ll become major leaguers. We imagine that we’ll attend church more regularly. That we’ll remember to call our moms.
We do it during moments big and small; we indulge the idea that we’ll be better people, or win the lottery and forget our financial woes, or always be able to make plans because the people we love will never die on us. Cars won’t cross medians, and blood vessels won’t burst, and our hearts won’t fail us. Especially after the people we love are gone, we imagine our hearts won’t fail us. We’re always making little bargains with time, and expecting time to keep them, and for magic to enforce the deal. We believe in bits of magic major and minor, close to things as they play out and very far from reality, and we do it because the crush is too exhausting otherwise. We need the magic.
Thinking we know strangers is magical thinking, too. Thinking we knew Jose Fernandez is magical thinking. We weren’t his people. Not in the way that makes you exchange Christmas cards or know each other’s jokes. We felt we knew him, because he played a game well and did it in a way that made us feel things.
Didion describes an inability to give away her late husband’s shoes after he died because if he were to return, he would need them. Part of her expected him to just walk into their apartment one day. On Monday, some part of me expected Fernandez to come bounding out of dugout; some part of me expected to see his smile, and learn in a rush of happiness and rage that this had all been some horrible misunderstanding. That he had spent an evening disoriented and confused and wounded somewhere. That he hadn’t known himself, but knew himself now. That we could all know him again. I looked for him in the crowd, seeing one teammate, and then another, and mentally weighing each of them, measuring each of them to see if they might be Jose. Wondering if perhaps he was hidden amongst them, the real number 16 in a sea of identical jerseys, ready to reveal a mistake had been made. There to declare that we hadn’t lost this person we didn’t really know, but felt we did.
Of course, he wasn’t there. I wondered if, despite these tributes taking place in front of fans there to say their own goodbyes, I wasn’t intruding on something. I wondered what our presence was even good for. Our collective will could not raise him like Lazarus. But a not small part of me thought it might. Because the prospect of magic and resurrection and horrible, blundering error was easier to accept than the sight of tears that couldn’t be held back and strong men who didn’t bother trying.
Expressive people often create a sense of intimacy with strangers. Their faces draw us in, because they are seemingly trying to hide so little. We feel we know them. They allow themselves to like things. They allow us to see them liking things, unclouded by cynicism or skepticism, or the expectation that we as grownups should know better. Jose Fernandez did know better. He had seen hardship and horror, and knew it just fine, and decided to like things anyway. He decided, in what I can only imagine was a somewhat magical combination of will and natural buoyancy, to know better but also choose better. It was magical thinking in a world and a time that feels broken. But it was the best sort. The kind that sustains us. The kind that moves us forward. The kind that lets us dream, when the times and waters are very, very dark.
We engage in magical thinking all the time. We didn’t know him. We’ll never know him now. But the same part of me that looked for him on the field on Monday will probably forget for stretches this winter that he won’t make a start when the Marlins come to Safeco next summer. I’ll forget and maybe look forward to it for a moment or a day before remembering. “The way you got sideswiped was by going back,” Didion tells us. You get whomped, you get knocked down. You go back to a time when the schedule had just come out and you got excited at the idea of finally seeing Fernandez in person before remembering that no one will ever see him in person again. You wonder how much grief you’re really entitled to. You think about where the edges of your magical thinking lay. You begin to bargain with a nameless, faceless, likely edgeless thing, a phantom. You portion out tears. You wonder how much intimacy you can feign, how much the wonderment makes up for not knowing his people. You mourn the loss. You mourn for people you’ve never met and never will meet. For Jose, we mourn for a child he’ll never meet.
We feel hollow and walloped, because we realize we have no intimate memories with which to fill the void where all our future memories of him would be. Except of course we do. We have smiles. We have his obvious, easy joy. We have wonderment; his, at what he and others could do, ours at how easy it all seemed to come to him. We have his number, his now forever. We have the respect that came with it. We get to enjoy, despite the word being overused, his legacy. It wasn’t real magic. It wasn’t all of him. It isn’t what his people have. But it’s what he gave us, and it is an awful lot more than nothing.
It’s magical thinking to believe this game matters. It’s magical thinking to think your team will make it when they shouldn’t, that aging veterans rebound, that this is worth millions of dollars. It’s magical thinking to think we’ll see him again. But confronted with simply accepting this reality, or believing in something magical, I wonder if it isn’t a fitting tribute to embrace the wonder. To be awed. To look at Dee Gordon’s home run and believe we saw angel’s wings. To think we’ll be fully whole again. That we’ll remember to call our moms so that when we do, we can tell them a story not of tragedy on the rocks, or faces twisted in tears, but of a man with a smile that could light up a city. A man who loved his mother and grandmother, who fought and clawed for his freedom, and when granted it, chose to like things. To throw as hard as he could. To work tirelessly. To inspire fellowship with his teammates. To be the best he could be. To love and live and dazzle. To free us from the closeness of grief. To be missed. To be magical.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now