There are some days that burn themselves into the history of sports.
Some of them are for good reasons: Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier on April 15, 1947, for example.
Some of them are for bad reasons: September 5 and 6, 1972 were the days when the Munich Massacre happened at the Olympics.
And some of them are for reasons both good and bad: June 17, 1994 was perhaps the most eventful day in sports history. There was even a documentary about it. Game 5 of the NBA finals was in New York. The New York Rangers had their victory parade. The first World Cup on American soil began. Baseball wasn’t on strike yet. Arnold Palmer (I’ll get back to him) played his final US Open round. Overshadowing it all, though, was Buffalo Bills legend OJ Simpson in a white Bronco.
Yesterday, September 25, 2016 was one of the last kinds of those days. The mixed kind. For you see, yesterday saw both the past and the future die. It also saw the present live.
Jose Fernandez was the future. An immigrant who fled Cuba after years of trying, diving into the water to save his mother during the trip. He pitched with a joy that few have seen, and his pitching brought that same joy to all except those who opposed him. His determination was also legendary: when he arrived in America at 15, he was by all accounts a far cry from the stud pitcher he became. It was only through hard work that he became a prospect, then a super-prospect, and then a ace.
And then he got hurt, and was mostly missing for two whole season.
And then he came back, better than he was before. A rising star who was an attraction by himself, and with endless potential ahead of him. One of the new faces of baseball, every bit as amazing as Trout, Harper, Machado and their ilk.
Except, in some ways, Fernandez was more than any of them. He represented the ideal of the game of baseball that in some ways has only existed in our minds. The game where everyone can play, regardless of where they come from or what language they can speak. The game where people can have fun like they had when they were kids, even if they are being paid absurd amounts of money. The game that is a game, not a war (like football).
And now he’s gone. A potential Hall of Fame career, up in smoke along the Florida coast, along with the lives of two of his friends. What he could have been, whether he could have met that potential and continued to bring so much joy to a game that at times desperately needs it… we will never know.
We do, however, know what Arnold Palmer had. He had quite the past. He wasn’t the greatest golfer ever, but he may have been the most famous, and with good reason. He has a drink named after him- not even Babe Ruth has that (he had to settle for a candy bar that officially isn’t even named after him). He loved the sport he played, and was one of the best at it. While it is tragic that he has passed, he lived a full life, and left his mark upon the sports world that his talent deserved.
Arnold Palmer, in other words, lived the life that Jose Fernandez could have lived.
Between mourning the lost future of Jose Fernandez and the glorious past of Arnold Palmer, the games went on, as they almost always do. It was full of the moments- good and bad and in-between- that define sports, and life. Vin Scully said goodbye to LA, yes, but there was also a walk-off HR to clinch the division. Football and golf went on, bringing their usual pains and triumphs. There is less than a week left to go in the MLB season, with some races still be decided, some careers still left to be finished and continued.
Yes, the games go on. They won’t show us what Jose Fernandez could have become, or what Arnold Palmer once was, but they will go on. And they will help us ease the pain and nostalgia, just as they help us forget the woes of everyday life on any given day.
After all, that’s what we love sports for, is it not?