Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Opacity of Modern Tragedy: Jose Fernandez, Yordano Ventura and the Ides of Growing Old

"Was" is the word that is used. In written articles, news broadcasts, and conversation, it signifies something that has come and gone. A simple online search of a deceased actor or other such persons of enough interest to warrant a profile will likely show "was" right after their name, even before presenting a date of death. It is an indicator. Something generally, and hopefully, reserved for those who lived long enough lives to outlast an early grave. Yet death cares not for our plans or intentions. We are the sum of our choices and the choices of the company we keep. Jose Fernandez was. Yordano Ventura was. Youth, life, broken and gone in an instant. In the moments after their deaths, there was grieving, condolence, and other warm sentiments spread to and around those directly affected by the tragedies. Then time passed, police reports became public, and public opinion shifted from heart-wrenched to casting stones and resignation of fait accompli. Why is that? Nothing can undo the choices those young men made now. In the deaths of these two young men, we have the full dichotomy of modern tragedy: support and blame.

Jose Fernandez emigrated to America from Cuba in 2008. The story of his escape to Florida harkens back to nineteenth-century novels of tragic victory. Between 2005 and 2006, he tried to defect three times, each time resulting in a prison term. Finally, in 2007, Jose and his mother were able to escape in the night. Turbulent waters threw her overboard, and a fifteen-year-old Jose jumped in, risking his life for a chance to save his mother. She survived, and they were able to defect to Mexico, a common landing spot for Cuban defectors. By 2008, they were able to find their way to Florida, where Jose attended high school and began to develop some consistency in his life.

Drafted in the first round by the Marlins out of Braulio Alonso High School in Tampa, Florida, Jose showed a gift for pitching that was uncommon and a spirit that was even less so. The following year, he was in Miami, pitching in the Majors. He won rookie of the year honors with ease over fellow Cuban defector and highlight darling Yasiel Puig. In 2013, he averaged 5.8 hits per nine innings pitched, a rate that was the best in the game. Cy Young voting placed him third in the National League. He was 21 years old, already anointed one of the best pitchers in the game.

Yordano Ventura had a much less harrowing journey to the Major Leagues, but it was no polished prospect's life. After quitting school at fourteen, he took a job in construction in his hometown of Samana, Dominican Republic. He joined the Kansas City Royals' Dominican Academy, quickly making his mark with his fastball strength. The Royals signed Ventura back in 2008, and their relatively inexpensive investment was beginning to look like a diamond in the rough.

By 2011, Yordano was in the Minors, playing for Kane County in the Midwest League. His fastball was touching triple digits, and the Royals were floundering in the American League. The Kansas City front office was so eager to set Ventura loose, that they promoted him in late 2013, leaving the Omaha Storm Chasers without their ace going into the AAA Championship Game. The 2014 season would be a sea change for both Yordano and the Royals. His ability to miss bats and dazzle scoreboard radar guns was a thing of beauty. The Royals were suddenly a rising force in MLB, and Yordano Ventura was an ace in waiting that they had up their sleeve, down in the rotation.

At the same time, Jose Fernandez was recovering from Tommy John surgery, a procedure that fixes a snapped ulnar collateral ligament by replacing it with another ligament from the body. His sophomore season had been cut short, and there was no clear timetable for his return. The fear was that he would not return to his rookie phenom form when, or if, he ever threw another pitch. There was talk about wasted youth and unrealized potential. He would make it back on July 2nd, 2015. In that game, Jose collected six strikeouts and hit a home run. Fears were curbed. Later in the year, Fernandez won his seventeenth consecutive home start, breaking a Major League record. Things were looking up after a long road back.

For Yordano Ventura, things were at their zenith. In 2014, he had been a force of resilience for the upstart Royals, winning a World Series game and holding the San Francisco Giants down to force game seven. The Giants ultimately prevailed, but the Royals had broken through and had a taste of glory.

Yordano signed a five-year contract with Kansas City. In him, they were eyeing a potential future top of the rotation starter, or at worst, a lights-out reliever. On April 6, 2015, he started Opening Day against the White Sox. Over the full run of the season, he would cut down 156 batters. The Royals were the best team in baseball. As baseball's strange ways would have it, Yordano would lose game three of the World Series against the New York Mets. It would be the only loss for Kansas City. At 24, Yordano Ventura was a World Series Champion. The eyes of the baseball world could not ignore him if they tried. Fiesty, vocal, and talented to an absurd degree, Yordano Ventura was primed for a long and mighty career as a villain of sorts. He was never afraid to brush back a batter or toss his glove if that batter charged his way.

Jose Fernandez's Marlins were not as formidable as Yordano's Royals. They spent more days in last than first. During his career, Miami never made the playoffs. No matter, Jose was must-watch baseball. It wasn't just his talent, his brilliance, or his work-ethic. He was the embodiment of what we romanticize about baseball- youthful exuberance and boundless joy. He was a twenty-something ten-year-old, and he was a gift to the game.

Was. I use it because, of course, Jose died in a boating accident on the morning of September 25, 2016. I remember reading the news on twitter. In a year that seemed to be marked repeatedly by the loss of mammoth public figures, a pitcher on a team I tend to hate was perhaps the heaviest to me. It wasn't just his youth or talent or attitude. Jose was a face of baseball. He was an important figure in the South Florida community. He was 24.

Was. I use the same word for Yordano Ventura because, as is well known, he died in an automobile accident on January 22, 2017. Twitter, again, was how I learned. Immediately my heart sank and I was reminded of the way I felt not even four months earlier. A young flame extinguished, a life capable of anything cut short in an instant. Condolences and warm sentiments were shared immediately and universally, as it was for Fernandez. He was 25.

Alcohol. Cocaine. Recklessness. The results of the investigation surrounding Jose Fernandez's death came as suddenly as the death itself, though it was no world-changing surprise. Not that anyone suspected Jose was one to abuse alcohol or narcotics, but the scenario surrounding the incident seemed to lead assumptions that way. As the saying goes, you play stupid games, you win stupid prizes. The recklessness exhibited by Fernandez ended his life and the lives of two other men that morning. In no way should he be exonerated of the moral charges his character has taken since then, but the court of public opinion seemed to turn quickly on Jose.

The same was more sudden for Yordano Ventura, who had been reportedly driving in excess of one hundred miles per hour at the time his Jeep Wrangler flipped going into a curve in the road. The negativity came sooner for the late Royals' ace. Before police reports had been finalized, assumptions had been tossed around casting blame and accusations of intoxication upon Ventura. His recklessness had stirred the emotions barely scarred over from Jose's death, and with the revelation and confirmation of the facts surrounding that tragedy, the timeline from sorrow to anger was even shorter for Yordano.

What causes this "black and white" tendency in humanity? In one moment, there is a pit in our collective stomachs, unwilling to be filled by negative thoughts pertaining to the recently deceased. Soon enough, a divisive and sharply contrasted emotion comes into fruition, especially when the cause was something somewhat dangerous to begin with.

Why do they put themselves in danger like that? Why do they feel the need to seek danger and thrill? If you're reading this and you've ever been young, think back and you might understand. Imagine you have more money than you can fathom. Remember the invincibility of youth and how the future was always longer than the past. There is no justification for making poor choices, but what is the point of condemnation in the face of tragedy?

Is there something in our instinct, something that needs justification, that has been brewing for millennia, only now blossoming into its brilliant bloom in the internet age? What can be gained by projecting superiority, consciously or otherwise, over another person? By condemning Fernandez and Ventura for their recklessness, we can feel more at ease about our tendencies to consider the consequences of actions and act responsibly. After all, you don't make it to 30, 40, 60, 90 years of age by being so careless. What we forget is that we grow old because we survive the times when we are.

It's a version of confirmation bias. We interpret the past in a manner that justifies the present. When I was young, I was very, very dumb. I drove drunk more times than I can remember. It was irresponsible and abhorrent and I look back at those days and my heedless attitude with shame, but hiding from them only creates a culture that perpetuates the behavior. Thank God I never hurt anyone, or myself. If I refuse to see the error of my ways, what good can I be in the future? Just because I made it out unscathed in the past, that by no means guarantees a trend. Much like in baseball, slumps and streaks are always broken. I survived my misdeeds and youthful ignorance. Tragically, Jose and Yordano did not.

I cannot judge them. I believe that only God is capable of that duty, and I believe a full life cannot be negated by a single action. There is more to a person than a list of accomplishments and accusations. Jackie Robinson famously said "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives." If someone has ever made you laugh or smile or cheer, can those moments be taken back by a moment of ignorance? Can a person's life be null in void when fleeting actions contradict their perceived character?

There is no justifying the actions of Jose Fernandez and Yordano Ventura. Their decisions ruined families and devastated teammates. But they are gone. We are still here. In that, there is only the self-awareness of our present and the need to recognize that not everything must be black and white. A person can give us joy and still be capable of its opposite, and vice versa.


As Yordano Ventura took the mound on September 30th, in what would be the last start of his career and his life, he wore a cap he had altered. In white letters above his right eye he wrote RIP JF 16 in tribute to Fernandez. Above his left eye, he wrote RIP OT 12 to recognize Oscar Taveras, the St. Louis Cardinals super-prospect and fellow Dominican. A year earlier, as Ventura and his team were preparing for game five of the World Series, the news broke that Taveras had died in a car accident. Toxicology reports concluded that his blood-alcohol level was over six times the legal limit in the Dominican Republic.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Carpe Noctem: The Geoff Blum Story

A baseball season can seem so long that a single plate appearance can seem largely insignificant. As summer's long days turn cold and th...