MIAMI (CNN) — Marlins leadoff hitter Dee Gordon, a lefty, took one pitch from the right side of the plate Monday night in honor of the teammate he lost in a weekend boating accident.
Then Gordon switched to his natural left side and hit the third pitch to the upper deck for his first home run of the season. The unlikely blast from the 160-pound infielder set the tone for an emotional night in which the Marlins remembered their beloved ace Jose Fernandez. Gordon later said it was the hardest ball he ever hit.
The Marlins Park crowd erupted in cheers as Gordon rounded the bases. Close to tears, Gordon touched his heart and looked up into the night sky as he crossed the plate. Then he sobbed on the shoulders of his teammates as he made his way to the dugout, capping one of the most poignant recent moments in sports.
The Marlins took the field Monday night in jerseys with Fernandez’s name and No. 16. Teams officials hinted that it could be the last time a Marlins player wears that number.
Before the game with the New York Mets, players on both teams stood with their caps over their hearts as a lone trumpeter played “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
Players from both teams exchanged hugs before the Marlins converged on the pitcher’s mound to rub dirt on their pants. The late pitcher preferred to use dirt instead of the rosin bag to keep his hands dry.
After all that, the outcome of the game seemed like an afterthought. But the Marlins beat the Mets 7-3, one day after calling off Sunday’s game to mourn the loss of the 24-year-old Fernandez, who died along with two of his friends early Sunday in a crash at the entrance of Miami Harbor.
Once the game ended, the Marlins locked arms around the pitcher’s mound. Some knelt in prayer, others wiped away tears. One player kissed the pitching rubber. They all placed their caps on the mound before walking slowly off the field.
‘We will always remember you’
Fernandez was one of baseball’s premier pitchers.
Defecting from his native Cuba at 15, he made his big-league debut against the New York Mets on April 7, 2013. For five innings, he baffled hitters with fastballs and curves, surrendering one run and striking out eight on his way to being named National League Rookie of the Year.
The Marlins canceled their Sunday game against the Atlanta Braves as news of his death stunned the baseball community, with players and fans alike taking to social media to express their grief.
The fans loved Fernandez, enjoying his energy and admiring his talent. Before Monday’s game, they lined up to purchase Fernandez jerseys, which were flying off the shelves, and people paid their respects at a makeshift shrine outside the stadium.
Dora Amador is a season ticket holder in the “Jose’s Heroes” section of the stadium. Amador, a fellow Cuban, said she met Fernandez outside the stadium after one of his first starts in 2013. “I’m so heartbroken,” she said.
One boy held a sign that said, “We will always remember you Jose Fernandez. You were awesome to us. RIP. Rest in Peace Jose.”
A loss to baseball
Longtime baseball reporter Ken Rosenthal tweeted about Fernandez on Monday.
“Something for MLB to consider: A Jose Fernandez spirit award, presented to the player who best exemplifies love and passion for the game.”
Adam Conley took the mound for the Marlins on Monday.
Conley tweeted a photo of himself and Fernandez in the uniform of the minor league Greensboro, North Carolina, Grasshoppers, with the message: “You were family, miss you brother.”
Fernandez’s death has been described as a loss to baseball, the Miami community where he lived and beyond.
“The magnanimity of his personality transcended culture, religion and race,” Marlins President David Samson said at an emotional news conference Sunday flanked by team officials.
“Jose is a member of this family for all time,” Samson said. “His story is representative of a story of hope, and of love and of faith, and no one will ever let that story die.”
‘There’s a game to be played’
Fernandez was born in Santa Clara, Cuba, and defected to the United States in 2008.
The Marlins drafted him in 2011, and he went on to become the franchise’s star pitcher and a two-time All-Star.
But his story was about more than success on the field.
In 2008, Fernandez succeeded on his fourth attempt to flee Cuba, according to a 2013 Miami Herald article. He’d been jailed for a previous failed attempt and, this time, was trying to reach the United States via Mexico with his mother and sister.
Out in the open water, the newspaper reported, someone fell off the boat, and Fernandez, a good swimmer, asked no questions; he jumped in to save the person — who turned out to be his mother, Maritza.
Early Sunday, Fernandez and two other men were found dead after their boat was discovered at the entrance of Miami Harbor, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Lorenzo Veloz.
US Coast Guard personnel noticed the vessel upside down on the north end of a rocky jetty early Sunday, Veloz said. Divers recovered two bodies under the boat, and a third victim was found on the rocks.
The Marlins tweeted Monday: “There’s a game to be played. He’d want it that way.”