What makes a human life valuable? If you have something resembling a soul, you’d probably answer that the value is intrinsic — a life matters simply because it is a life. This shouldn’t strike anyone as a controversial statement, yet it seems to become one in a time of mourning. We must remind ourselves that, beyond accomplishments and transgressions, abilities and flaws, every person has a life worth living.
On Sunday morning, an unfathomable tragedy occurred in the baseball world: Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident. The 24-year-old hurler had a justified reputation as an exuberant competitor, a player who loved every second he spent on the diamond. Virtually all of Fernandez’s teammates were in tears at the club’s morning press conference; the team canceled its game for later that day. Players across the majors honored Fernandez throughout the day, each in his own way, and baseball fans expressed their grief.
Some onlookers, however, mourned Fernandez in a different manner. Sporting News contributor Ryan Spaeder spent the day promoting his favorite Fernandez stats; Spaeder’s colleague Ryan Fagan argued Fernandez may have become a Hall of Fame member had he kept pitching. Yahoo Sports’ Chris Cwik made the case that Fernandez deserved to win the Cy Young award posthumously. High Heat Stats, a popular baseball Twitter account, lamented that “Fernandez’s death really hurts the Marlins,” since the pitcher wouldn’t have become a free agent for another two years. Similar observations percolated through the Twittersphere, as fans expressed their sorrow that Fernandez wouldn’t live up to his full potential.
With the exception of the now-deleted High Heat Stats tweet, all of this may appear benign. Fernandez might have wished to be remembered as he lived — an ace pitcher, a Cy Young winner and Hall of Famer in the making. But we walk a fine line between praising his skill on the mound and equating that skill to his worth as a person. Implicit in the discussion of Fernandez’s greatness is the inverse: A lesser man’s death wouldn’t be nearly as tragic.
That sounds like a big leap; could anyone make it? We needn’t pose that as a hypothetical when examples surround us. In a now-notorious profile of Michael Brown, the black teenager killed by a white police officer in August 2014, The New York Times’ John Eligon wrote that Brown was “no angel,” as “police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars.” When discussing Keith Lamont Scott, whom a police officer shot and killed last week, CNN correspondent Polo Sandoval focused on his criminal history and emphasized past violence. The New York Post’s Bob McManus has carried this mindset to its logical conclusion, writing in December 2014 Eric Garner, who died in July of that year after a police officer put him in a chokehold, was “a career petty criminal” who resisted arrest and therefore “was a victim of himself.”
Brown, Scott and Garner didn’t have major-league careers, much less aspirations to fame and greatness in the world of baseball. But each of them brought something good into the world — Brown was kind and quick with a joke; Scott was a family man who treasured his mother; and Garner was a gentle giant nicknamed “Teddy Bear.” And Fernandez was entirely the same. During an unsuccessful defection attempt from Cuba, he saved his mother from drowning. He enjoyed spending time with his teammates’ children, and he always had fun on the field, regardless of what happened.
There’s no harm in reflecting on Fernandez’s talents, bountiful as they were. However, our focus as we memorialize him should lie elsewhere, just as it should with Brown, Scott and Garner. Fernandez was a great pitcher, and his life mattered: Both are true, and the former has nothing to do with the latter. He will be missed, not for his pitching, but for the happiness he gave to those around him.
Ryan Romano is a sophomore journalism major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.