Sometime next season, a family taking in a ballgame will pull into the garage at Marlins Park and begin their stroll through the manicured, festive breezeways leading into the ballpark. They will come upon a new, larger-than-life statue. With glove wishfully in hand, the child will gaze upon the statue and ask, “Daddy, who’s Jose Fernandez?”
The long pause as I sat at my keyboard, trying to figure out a sentence to write after that one, pales in comparison to moms and dads who will fumble for answers.
And therein lies the quandary behind the Marlins’ decision to erect a statue of at least 9 feet tall of Fernandez, who was larger than life, yet small in death. That sounds cold, I know, but no colder to you than the news to the families of Emilio Macias and Eduardo Rivero that their loved ones also were killed Sept. 25 when Fernandez — too reckless and too impaired to be piloting a boat — crashed into a jetty off Miami Beach.
Toxicology reports released in October showed Fernandez’s blood-alcohol level was .147, well above the .08 limit. Cocaine was found in his system. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued a report in March that the boat was going 65.7 mph, nearly its maximum of 65.9. If Fernandez had survived, he surely would have gone to prison.
While that doesn’t necessarily make him evil, it doesn’t make him saintly.
It makes us, likely, conflicted.
It makes us, possibly, erase the romantic notion he was a role model worthy of putting on a pedestal.
The Marlins did the right thing the day after the crash when they resumed play, honoring Fernandez with tears and touching tributes. In the offseason, they enclosed his locker in Plexiglas, turning it into a permanent shrine in the clubhouse. They announced plans for a Jose Fernandez Night in 2017.
But things began to get murky when Miami-Dade County commissioners got in the act just days after the toxicology report was released. They approved the renaming of a 2 1/2-mile stretch of 17th Avenue by the ballpark to Jose Fernandez Avenue.
This isn’t the first time a section of the road has been named after a person. Teddy Roosevelt has a piece of it. So too Bradley S. Glascock.
Glascock? He was a state trooper shot and killed during a traffic stop in Miami in 1977. His death led Florida to purchase bullet-resistant vests for all state troopers. He was 24.
And now he shares a road with Jose Fernandez.
Reporters covering the commission meeting that included renaming the street noted how a few commissioners left their chairs before the vote.
Uncomfortable, isn’t it? Better left unanswered are questions over the poison Fernandez had in his system. A one-time binge? A habit? Do we really need to know? Or want to?
But let us not forget Fernandez embodied so many South Floridians’ stories, which is why that awful Sunday morning in September broke hearts like few ever could. He was 15 when he came from Cuba on a raft, winning freedom on his fourth attempt. He played the game the way we wish all professional athletes would, with passion and love and joy that no fat contract could inflame. Tommy John surgery might fell some. Fernandez followed it by winning more games than he ever had (16) and striking out more batters than he ever had (253). He was an All-Star, again.
Parents can tell their children all about that. Then what?
“It doesn’t change the legacy of Jose, in our view,” Marlins President David Samson said in response to the FWC analysis. “It is very disappointing. It’s a tragedy. But it doesn’t change our love for him or the fact we want him to be memorialized here at Marlins Park, because he is forever a Marlin.”
In some ways, statues are to sports what postseason invites have become: so many get one.
Dan Marino and Joe Robbie? No-brainers. Ditto for Don Shula, although the statue of him on two of his players’ shoulders feature Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti and, curiously, a backup lineman named Al Jenkins.
The Heat must surely erect statues at the AmericanAirlines Arena someday for Pat Riley, Micky Arison and Dwyane Wade. Erik Spoelstra, too, possibly, if he passes the longevity test (Fernandez, who played only four seasons, does not).
One can only hope the Panthers correct their oversight in not erecting a 10-foot rat outside the BB&T Center.
Nationally, so many statues are above reproach: Arnie. Michael. Lombardi. Bear. Pat Tillman. Pat Summitt. Rocky.
Others are statues of limitations: Joe Paterno. Zinedine Zidane (the sculptor creating his statue bizarrely chose to depict his infamous head butt). Just this week, a bust of Cristiano Ronaldo became a social media piñata.
To this mix we raise the bronze likeness of Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez.
And with it, we raise all sorts of uncomfortable questions.