What resulted was as emotional a scene as a baseball field has hosted since … well, why even compare?
The Marlins, over decades, have developed a hard-earned reputation for ineptitude. Monday night, every touch appeared perfect. On Sunday, the grounds crew had painted Fernandez’s No. 16 on the back of the mound, and it remained there when the Marlins took the field.
“Nobody’s going to wear it,” Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria told reporters before the game. “I can tell you that now. Nobody will wear that number again.”
Except for Monday night. On Monday night, each of the Marlins uniformed personnel — players and coaches alike — wore black jerseys with the No. 16, and with Fernandez’s name scrawled across the back.
Monday night was supposed to be Fernandez’s turn in the rotation. He was the one who was supposed to face the Mets, coming off his eight-inning, three-hit, no-walk, 12-strikeout masterpiece against the Nationals last week.
Instead came pitch-perfect tributes. Marlins Park is normally raucous — not because of the crowd, which is normally tiny, but because of the in-game production, meant to simulate a South Beach club. Here, instead, came a lone trumpeter playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as a montage of Fernandez pictures played on the scoreboard.
All nine players in the Marlins’ starting lineup gathered around the mound, and there was, of course, a moment of silence. We do not often see baseball players — professional athletes of any kind, really — weep publicly. Here, though, several did, some using their caps to hide their faces.
The national anthem was subdued and when it ended, a real indication of how Fernandez’s death has impacted not just the Marlins, but all of baseball: A group hug between both teams. Mets slugger Yoenis Cespedes, who like Fernandez grew up in Cuba, embraced several Marlins emphatically. The ballpark seemed silent. This was not rote. This was real.
The Marlins then gathered around the mound, and each of them wrote something with his finger in the dirt — a tribute, Fernandez’s number, whatever was deemed appropriate. Some Marlins took some of that dirt and rubbed it on their uniforms. And then the entire Marlins team gathered to the side of the mound, where star right fielder Giancarlo Stanton delivered a message. They had a game to play. Somehow, they had a game to play.
Adam Conley, designated to replace Fernandez for Monday’s start, retired the Mets without issue in the first. And then Dee Gordon led off the bottom half.
On Sunday afternoon, Gordon had walked alone to the mound that already bore Fernandez’s number. He bawled. Gordon is a left-handed hitter. Monday night, he walked to the plate and stood in the right-handed box, the side from which Fernandez would have hit. He wore a helmet protecting his left ear — presumably Fernandez’s helmet.
This was, clearly, a tribute, and it lasted one pitch, a ball from Mets veteran Bartolo Colon. With that, Gordon flipped off the batting helmet he wore to hit from the right side and grabbed his own, digging into the left-handed box. He took another ball from Colon.
Up 2-0 in the count, Gordon got a two-seam fastball from Colon, his signature pitch. Gordon put his best swing on it, and drove it to right. It sailed out, a home run.
Whatever Gordon was thinking rounding the bases, there was no place to hide his emotions, which were right there on his face. He cried before he hit the plate. He cried as he embraced Marcell Ozuna, awaiting in the on-deck circle. He cried as he hugged Martin Prado and Barry Bonds, the hitting coach, and as he made his way through the dugout. He just cried.
What an odd thing, this game that mattered so much to the Mets in the standings, that in a lot of ways couldn’t have mattered to the Marlins. But they played. In extraordinary and in some ways unnecessary circumstances, they played.