Dee Gordon led off the game. He stood in the right handed batter’s box, even though he’s not a switch hitter. The back of his jersey, like the rest of his team’s that night, said Fernandez, number 16. He took a pitch from Bartolo Colon, 43 years old, then gathered another batting helmet from his bench, gave back Jose Fernandez’s batting helmet and illegally switched to the left-handed side of the plate mid-at-bat. No one mentioned it. Gordon, 28 years old, took another pitch from Colon and swung at the third. Colon is a big man, by which I mean he’s 5’11”, 280. Gordon is a small man, by which I mean he is also 5’11” but a scant 175. Colon doesn’t pitch for power, and Gordon doesn’t hit home runs, and yet somehow that third pitch ended up in the second deck in right field.
Jose Fernandez, 24 years old, died in a boating accident Saturday night.
Fernandez was a big man, by which I mean he was 6’2″, 240. He’d just announced the pregnancy of his girlfriend last week. His child is -0.5 years old.
Gordon, from what the news would suggest, may have been affected by the loss of his teammate more than the rest of the Marlins. I don’t know if that’s true, but rounding the bases after hitting his first home run of the year after breaking the rules to wear his dead friend’s batting helmet, Gordon lost his composure. He was crying by the time he stepped on home plate, and if Don Mattingly had better emotional awareness he would’ve held onto the poor man for longer than one brief second, because Gordon fell into him like a safety net. But maybe Mattingly wanted to make sure Gordon got his hugs from the rest of the team, too.
This is how you are permitted to mourn, as a black man in America. First, be on television, be famous before it ever begins. Second, make sure the death was an accident, that the decedent bore no culpability in his demise, that no one else bore any culpability in his demise, that the decedent was not only beyond suggestion of fault but was also an inspirational megastar on the cusp of reaching his full megastar potential, a pillar of the community, in this case an escapee from Cuba who did jail time as a young teenager for attempting to emigrate, a success story of Horatio Alger proportion, a natural talent with an incredible work ethic, an All-Star. Third, don’t strike out. But don’t walk, either. Don’t single. Don’t double. Don’t triple. Send a soaring, majestic declaration of your determination to survive, to continue or better yet exceed your previous success at your j-o-b, so that we know you are strong, so that we know you will go back to being the reliable spectacle of entertainment we are used to. Fulfill these requirements, and you may now cry, beyond the scope of our collective potential criticism. Beyond the cries of why-your-tragedy-not-mine. Beyond the claims that All Lives Matter. Beyond the questions of wardrobe, of gait, of intent, of place and time. Beyond hoodies and bags of Skittles. Beyond mugshots and rap sheets. Beyond any mitigation of the life now lost, and your potential gain as a result of the publicity, even if that gain might could only rectify the present unjust. You’re rich, young, successful. This sadness will not profit you, so go ahead. You may mourn.
* * *
Me, I can cry pretty much whenever I want to. If I want to. Not but an hour after I heard about Fernandez (but did not believe, it did not sink in, because how could this be possible, it didn’t make sense, who dies that young), I heard about the passing of a girl I used to work with back in Virginia. She was skinny, kind, small-boned, almost sickly, had bright but tired eyes, an infectious and frequent smile, her lower lip pierced with a ring in the corner, usually wearing a nondescript beanie, at least at when she was at work. I don’t know how she died and I’m afraid to ask, I haven’t really kept in touch with anyone I knew or worked with there, I’ve tried to push past that part of my life. Again, I could not believe it, I was rattled with nagging doubts of how and why and how come so young.
I could cry over this and no one would fault me for it. Like Fernandez, she deserved a much longer life. An impeccable soul, brilliant, from what I can recall, utterly beyond reproach. She was part of my life, albeit a small one. I was affected by her; I am affected by this. But if I could not muster up empathy enough to cry watching the Marlins’ press conference, or the various tributes around the league, or the dedication of the mound where all Fernandez’s teammates threw their hats first with a thrust into the sky and then released them on the pitching rubber, and I like everyone else needed Dee Gordon to hit that home run to finally allow myself that burst of empathetic adrenalin, then I should hold myself to the same standard. It is a poor standard, nonsensical, but I do not deserve to be held exempt. Not for my fame, or lack. Not for the color of my skin—or lack.
We could all laugh together. We could all cry, together. If we wanted.