I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news of Thurman Munson’s death. I was at the kitchen table doing something—I don’t remember what. The radio was tuned to 1010 WINS, an all-news station. Back then, in 1979, breaking news on the station was preceded by a series of shrill beeps. I heard the beeps and sat up in my seat, curious to know just what news was breaking.
The announcer’s voice was filled with disbelief. The end of the big sentence, “killed in a plane crash,” was spoken like a question. He couldn’t believe it. He didn’t want to believe it.
I could believe it. I was 17 years old, and had been a Yankees fan for less than a year. My baseball knowledge was still infantile, and though I knew that Thurman Munson was the team’s catcher and captain, I understood very little of what either of those things meant.
The drama that unfolded over the next few days was like a movie to me—about a true story, of course. I watched it all and, I have to say, it was very engrossing. Until I realized it meant the end of the Yankees season.
Fast forward 27 years. Cory Lidle, a Yankees trade deadline acquisition crashed his private plane into a New York City high rise, killing himself and his flight instructor. I was at work when this one happened. Lidle had only been a Yankee for two months, and wasn’t expected to sign with them, so even though I was a veteran baseball fan, I watched his story like a movie as well.
Fast forward again, to September 25, 2016. I had just finished my laundry and had logged onto Twitter. Seconds later I saw it: Jose Fernandez was dead.
This was no movie. I felt it as if I had personally witnessed his boat hitting that jetty, as if I had personally known him, as if he were a cherished loved one. Why?
I didn't know him. I didn’t know about his smile. I didn’t know about his enthusiasm and playfulness. I didn’t know about all the times he tried to defect from Cuba. I didn’t know about his abuela. I didn’t know that he’d only just a few days ago announced his girlfriend’s pregnancy. He didn’t play on my team, so I knew only that he was a monumental pitching talent, on pace to be a Hall of Famer one day. I knew, too, that he’d had Tommy John Surgery. I also knew there were rumors that the Yankees would try to trade for him this coming off-season, which I was totally against. It would have meant giving up some of the best prospects in baseball, only a few months after the farm system had risen to top-five status.
I didn’t know him. But, still, I found myself hoping, even as late as 12 hours later, that a mistake had been made, that this young man was, in fact, still alive. Or, if not, that I could feel as if I were watching a movie, as with Munson and Lidle. The projector is silent, however. There is no popcorn or candy. It’s real life, even though I am hundreds of miles away from the coast of Florida.
Real life for me has included the deaths of many people I do know. Perhaps because I am an introvert, because I like to keep to myself, I have always found it easy to treat those deaths as movies. I search hard, deep within myself for grief, and though I have nothing but love and respect for the dead, I am rarely, if at all, able to find grief for them.
I found grief for Jose Fernandez. I wish that I knew the reason why. Is it because I am getting older? Because I know more about baseball than I ever have before? Because I love baseball more than I ever have before?
Maybe it’s something as simple as the fact that Jose Fernandez was such a young, special talent, destined for greatness, who is now gone too soon.
All of the above, one of the above, none of the above. It probably doesn’t matter. He’s gone. I grieve.