The helicopters passed overhead and joy filled the face of Jose Fernandez, which meant this moment was like most of the moments in his life, because he made a habit out of extracting joy — in baseball, in pitching, in telling a story, in a conversation about his first days after leaving Cuba — in everything around him.
It was the evening of July 3, and Fernandez and his teammates were on the third-base line at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, before the game to honor the soldiers there. I observed Jose watching the helicopters passing overhead, with his cellphone outstretched, taking it all in, and when the flag was lowered, he walked over to me, staring at what he recorded.
Fernandez had been so moved by the day, standing in the outfield and signing autograph after autograph. As he made his way back to the dugout just before the game, Fernandez noticed someone extending a flag toward him from the stands — an 82nd Airborne Division flag — and asking him to autograph it. Fernandez asked the man if he could take the flag, and he walked it into the Marlins' dugout and got every player, coach, and manager Don Mattingly to sign it, from Christian Yelich to Giancarlo Stanton.
Then he headed to the foul line for the anthem, for the helicopters.
"I got the whole thing!" he said excitedly. This is the way he talked about everything, it seemed.
He was as big a fan of baseball as any player in the game, someone who loved to watch what other players were doing, someone who loved to watch other teams. Fernandez once told me that if he hadn't played baseball, he would've followed it closely, playing fantasy, because he did everything with passion.
As someone who struggled to learn Spanish in college, I asked him, in the spring of 2015, how it was that he learned to speak English so well after leaving Cuba, and he laughed and told me a story about struggling with the language. In his class in high school, Jose said, the teacher required the students to speak only in English, and wouldn't acknowledge them unless they did so. But one day Fernandez really, really had to go to the restroom, so he kept saying in Spanish: baño. Baño.
The teacher kept insisting that he provide the English word.
"Baño," he said.
English, the teacher said.
Out of desperation and wondering if the teacher understood him, Jose then offered a gesture about why he needed the bathroom. "And I got sent to the principal's office for that," he said, laughing.
After he finished that story, he went to the outfield at the Marlins' spring training facility to run on the warning track. Fernandez was coming back from Tommy John surgery and he couldn't wait to pitch again, he said, but he had miles to go. The southern Florida skies opened as he stretched, and the other players in the area scurried for cover, to the clubhouse, to the batting cage.
Fernandez stayed on the field to sprint, the mud of the warning track spattering the back of his shirt, and in a little while, he came off the field, soaking wet, smiling, taking in the experience.
He radiated that same joy as he showed me his video of the helicopters.
"You ought to tweet that," I said.
"Papi, I don't know how to do that," he said.
"What about Facebook?" I asked.
"I don't know how to do any of that," he replied.
I told him that if he emailed me the video, I'd be happy to post it for him.
He extended his phone toward me. "Here, you do it," he said, and not long after, everyone could see, in that moment, the Jose Fernandez that his teammates and friends knew, a grinning young man so happy, so joyous.
But now he is gone.