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MIAMI — You could argue, rather effortlessly, that Jose Fernandez’s death last September instantly became the most debilitating death of a professional athlete in the history of United States sports.
1) How good a pitcher Fernandez was.
2) His dynamic personality.
3) His backstory, having been born in Cuba then defecting to the United States.
4) His placement in South Florida, with its large Latino population.
5) The Marlins’ turbulent history, and how badly they needed a larger-than-life player (in every way).
6) The sordid details that emerged in the months following the boating accident that killed Fernandez and two of his friends.
Sadly, but logically, it follows that Fernandez remains a controversial figure even in death. The Marlins announced Thursday that they would erect a statue to memorialize their fallen ace outside Marlins Park. That announcement has generated strong opinions on both sides of the issue, which in turn begs the question:
Did the Marlins have to act this quickly on such a heavy, momentous decision?
“It’s something Jeffrey wanted to do personally for Jose and his family and his fans — to have something that would permanently represent what Jose was,” David Samson, the Marlins’ president, told reporters Thursday.
Well, there you have it. Jeffrey Loria, the Marlins’ lightning-rod owner, wants to make this happen. He also is working to sell the team, with former Yankees captain Derek Jeter among those kicking the tires. So the Marlins acted swiftly to ensure that the statue would be set — it won’t be unveiled for at least six months — before a transfer of ownership occurred.
I am extremely sympathetic to Loria’s actions on this. To talk with Loria about Fernandez is to appreciate how deeply the owner cared for his ace pitcher, and how devastated he remains by Fernandez’s shocking death.
But I’m equally sympathetic to those who feel the Marlins let their emotions drive them to an uncomfortable place. A place in which they are honoring a fallen player whose estate is being sued by the families of the two men, Eduardo Rivero and Emilio Macias, who died along with Fernandez on Sept. 25.
Florida authorities have determined Fernandez was driving the boat that crashed into a jetty off Miami Beach, and that Fernandez had both cocaine and alcohol, with enough of the latter to meet the DUI threshold, in his system. Quite simply, if Fernandez hadn’t died in the crash, his career would be in peril anyway, as he would have faced a sizable prison sentence.
Loria doesn’t exist on an island with his stance. Other folks here (no one exhibited any enthusiasm for discussing this highly controversial subject on the record) speak with a glow of the impact Fernandez made on everyone around the team, around the city and around Major League Baseball. No one is perfect, this argument goes. Fernandez just paid the ultimate price for a night’s worth of bad choices.
The Marlins could have waited until the litigation played out. Let some time pass and get some distance between the awful event and the call on how to properly recognize this complicated legacy.
Now, however, there is no putting the toothpaste back in the tube. To cancel the plans for a statue would be a mistake. The Marlins’ best course is to go forward and live with the consequences.
This is a franchise with a century’s worth of history packed into two decades. The Marlins own two World Series trophies. They’ve employed colorful managers from Joe Girardi to Ozzie Guillen to Jim Leyland to Jack McKeon. Their three owners — Blockbuster Video mogul Wayne Huizenga, current Red Sox owner John Henry and Loria — have produced plenty of headlines with their actions and words.
And the Fernandez death adds a highly unwanted chapter to that profile. More than anything, you’re sorry the Marlins have to deal with such a terrible decision as the proper way to remember such a conflicted legacy.