The tragic death of Marlins' star pitcher Jose Fernandez early Sunday morning left the Mariners players stunned and somber. For closer Steve Cishek, a friend and former teammate of Fernandez, the news was devastating.
MINNEAPOLIS — The Mariners’ clubhouse is rarely quiet. But on Sunday morning at Target Field, the visitor’s clubhouse was eerily silent.
No conversations. No joking. No music. The only sound came from a television that was tuned to MLB Network and news of the tragic death of Marlins star Jose Fernandez. The 24-year-0ld right-hander was killed in a boating accident in Miami early Sunday morning.
“It’s very, very tragic,” Mariners manger Scott Servais said. “The baseball community is such a small, tight-knit group. It’s very, very sad. You can see it in our clubhouse today.”
Players sat quietly watching the analysts and guests discuss the vivacious personality of the all-star pitcher. Others put on headphones to have music drown out the words while never really removing their eyes from the screen. The reminder of the fragility of life loomed.
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“They all feel they’re invincible,” Servais said. “Things happen tragically, accidents happen. There is no rhyme or reason for it. It can happen to anybody. It hurts.”
After trying to distract himself with his pregame batting routine, outfielder Leonys Martin stood in front of the television, quietly clearing his throat a few times while highlights of Fernandez were being shown. They were childhood friends in Cuba and remained close despite divergent paths. They both endured the danger and risks to defect from Cuba to find a better life in the United States. It’s a bond that Cuban players shared. After a few minutes of watching, Martin shook his head and slumped into a chair in front of his locker, staring ahead.
Following the game, Martin returned to the locker, back turned to the clubhouse and head down. Several teammates stopped by his locker to check on him and whisper comforting words.
He wasn’t alone.
Eyes already puffy and red from a steady stream of tears, reliever Steve Cishek fought back more of them as he talked about his former teammate. Cishek and Fernandez were both drafted and developed by the Marlins. Cishek was the closer in 2013 when Fernandez won the National League rookie of the year.
“We were the second worst team in baseball, but when it was his start day, we were probably going to win that game,” Cishek said.
A text from a friend with a cryptic condolences and then another text from his wife was how Cishek first learned of the accident.
“It’s completely shocking,” he said with his voice shaking. “To have that be the first thing you wake up to is not fun. It’s just tragic. I can’t even fathom what he went through and what those guys over there on the Marlins are going through now. And obviously his family, my heart just grieves for his family. I know how hard it was for him to get here. It’s just heartbreaking.”
Cishek marveled at Fernandez’s immense talent, but it was the charisma and energy that became enamoring to him. Fernandez approached each day with a child-like joy.
“Jose was awesome,” Cishek said. “He was a great teammate. He would bring a smile to everyone’s face, your face, whoever it may be. He just always showed up to the field with a smile. What you see on the field is what you get off the field. He was smiling and laughing all the time. He was just someone that you enjoyed being around.”
The mention of Fernandez’s ever-present smile brought one briefly to Cishek’s face. But it wasn’t all just fun and jokes, Cishek saw the effort behind the success.
“His work ethic was second to none,” Cishek said. “He even took up street biking because he thought it was going to help him pitch better because he thought it would get him in better shape. He’s just a super competitor. That was one of the ways he loved to compete was riding that road bike. We told him he was crazy for doing that.”
Fernandez’s importance to baseball in Miami and its large Cuban community cannot be overstated. Think about the importance of Felix Hernandez to Seattle, but also multiply it because of the shared roots of heritage.
“They loved Jose,” Cishek said. “The fans are dealing with this just as hard, I’m sure. When Jose pitched, the place was electric, no matter how many people were there. Typically, people would show up. They would show up to see Jose, and he would bring the energy and it just lit the place up.”
For Sunday’s starter, Taijuan Walker, the idea of Fernandez dying hit home. They were both 24 — an age where so much of life is supposed to be ahead of you.
“He’s one of my favorite pitchers to watch,” Walker said. “I always watch his highlights and games when he’s on. It’s just really sad. It was really emotional. You get to the clubhouse and everyone is just down. It’s really sad for the game of baseball. That energy he brought every day and how happy he was to play the game. It’s a sad day. We lost someone special.”
With his heavy workload this season, the Mariners have decided to pull reliever Dan Altavilla from the Arizona Fall League. They have replaced him with right-hander Thyago Vieira.
Vieira, 23, pitched the entire season for Class A Bakersfield, posting a 1-0 record with a 2.84 ERA in 34 relief appearances. In 44 1/3 innings pitched, he struck out 53 batters and walked 18. A native of Brazil, Vieira will also pitch for his home country in the World Baseball Classic.