Jose Fernandez and the burdens of freedom

fernandez-boat

Jose Fernandez was a golden young man, with a golden right arm and a golden future.  At 24, he had already been selected twice to represent the Miami Marlins in the All-Star Game, and as starting pitcher he performed with talent and dominance given to very few in every baseball generation.

On the mound, he displayed an intensity that bordered on contempt for the opposition.  Bryce Harper of my Washington Nationals, a kindred spirit, placed Fernandez among those who are “making baseball fun again” because he wore his emotions so openly.  “Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist.  And if you hit a homer and pimp it?  He doesn’t care.  Because you got him,” said Harper admiringly.  The last time Fernandez pitched, he shut out the Nationals, Harper included, making a good team look like a pack of minor leaguers.

Fernandez, in brief, was a star who should have become one of the greats in the history of the game.

That was not to be.  Around midnight of Saturday, September 25, propelled by whatever restlessness drives a 24-year-old with endless supplies of money, he and two friends went out to the dark waters of Biscayne Bay on his speedboat, the “Kaught Looking.”  Two hours later the boat was found upside down on a jetty.  The three men on board had been crushed to death.  The golden youth, the golden arm, and the golden future were lost forever.

A bit over a month later, the Dade County medical examiner’s office released its report on the autopsy.  It had found cocaine and high levels of alcohol in Fernandez’s blood.

***

The back story of Jose Fernandez’s life is in some ways more significant than his career in professional sports.

He was born in Santa Clara, Cuba, and he determined from an early age to escape that crumbling dictatorship.  By the time he was 15, he had tried and failed three times to leave the island.  Failure cost him a prison term:  in Castro’s Cuba, you are a traitor if you aren’t happy with your life.  In this, Fernandez showed the same determination he was to display on the mound.  In 2008, along with family members, he tried a fourth time.

The boat he was in hit turbulent waters on the way to Mexico, and Fernandez’s mother was swept overboard.  He jumped in the ocean and rescued her.  “I have always been a strong swimmer, since I was a kid,” Fernandez said by way of explanation.  In fact he was a kid when this ordeal took place – barely 15 years old.

The fourth attempt succeeded.  Fernandez eventually made it to the US, attended high school in Miami, became an American citizen, and rode the golden arm to wealth and fame.  He was a ballplayer with a difference.  He had been born unfree and all possible paths were now open to him.  Fernandez often said that pitching in the major leagues never made him nervous.  He had lived through too much to worry about anything that transpired within a game.

The question that haunts the life and death of Jose Fernandez is that of the burdens of freedom.  He faced down a dictatorship with unyielding courage.  Given the freedom to do so, he succeeded, materially and professionally, beyond the dreams of the vast majority of people.  Can anything more be asked of a young man whose life, though eventful, had scarcely begun?

A number of Cuba’s baseball “defectors” – the word implies treason against the state – who have gone from nothing to freedom, appear to have had trouble working out the implications of the latter condition.  The great closer Aroldis Chapman was suspended from the game for 30 days for domestic violence.  Hector Olivera, with a $62 million contract in his pocket, served ten days in prison for misdemeanor assault of a female acquaintance.  Yasiel Puig, worth a mere $42 million, was involved in a drunken barroom brawl after a fight with his sister.  Livan Hernandez, favorite of Nationals fans, has clearly kept company with drug traffickers and has been investigated for money laundering, though he has never been prosecuted.

These men defied Castro’s decrepit tyranny, and succeeded materially and professionally beyond most people’s dreams.  But it may be that freedom, properly understood, entails something more than this.

***

To a man just released from a cage, all his desires will appear licit.  This is an illusion.  It is too much and not nearly enough.  Freedom, I think, is more than the buzz of cocaine, the chill of alcohol, the youthful madness of roaring over the water at 2 a.m. in a magnificent speedboat – more, too, than the right to strike at the persons who deny our desires, and who seem, by that denial, to be pushing us back in a cage.

We must make allowances for those who have escaped from darkness into the light of day, and are dazzled and blinded by the sudden brilliance.  But this isn’t freedom at all.

If you want to learn what freedom means, ask a couple in love.  Ask a parent.  Ask a soldier at war.  Freedom consists of choosing our obligations.  A tinseled despot like Fidel Castro may say, “I own your life – you belong to me.”  Freedom consists of the following response:  “No.  My loyalty is to my family.”  Or to my country.  Or to my friends and neighbors.  Or to my church.

Doing anything we desire isn’t freedom.  It’s tyranny of a different kind.  It’s playing the part of Fidel Castro in a Mini-Me sort of way.

The burdens of freedom are the obligations we choose.  Once chosen, they must be shouldered to the end.  To the shallow mind that may feel like a cage, but it is really integrity, wholeness, the rare and mysterious dignity of being a complete human being.  If you are truly married, you will be loyal to your spouse.  Otherwise, why bother with so many lies?  If you are a good parent, you will give up the party life, the days of rum and cocaine, the midnight races in the Bay, so you can be there to protect your children, and wipe their bottoms, and put up with their temper tantrums, and work for their happiness and success in life.  Otherwise, what do the words “father” and “mother” mean?

Jose Fernandez’s girlfriend, we are told, had just revealed that she was pregnant.  I am old-fashioned enough to worry about the notion of a pregnant girlfriend.  That seems like an obligation, too.  Fernandez, though, was nothing if not loyal, and I want to believe that, had he lived, he would have married the mother of his child.  But he never woke up to what fatherhood meant.  Maybe he needed more time, but he still acted like a restless 24-year-old with an endless supply of money, and then there was no time left.

His girlfriend, I presume, will inherit nothing.  His child will grow up never knowing his father, just as he will never know his child.

***

I’m not really writing this to moralize over the death of Jose Fernandez.  Even at 24, he was old enough to know better, but he paid with his life for his misjudgment.  That was much too high a price.  There can be nothing but sadness from the loss of this extraordinary young man.

I write because I believe many of us – not nearly so young, not nearly so dazzled by wealth and fame – have lost sight of what freedom means.  We have come to reject the very idea of obligation, because it feels like oppression.  We blame shadowy forces, some secretive but all-powerful Enemy, for whatever doesn’t go our way.

Everything today ends in politics, and this post, alas, will be no exception.  I don’t know how it happened that American politics became the equivalent of a cocaine high, with so many of us feeling like brazen masters of the universe, expecting as a matter of right the triumph of our opinions and the fulfillment of our every desire.  I don’t know how we came to believe that only the villainy of those who disagree with us is blocking the perfect utopia of our dreams.

But that isn’t the way of freedom at all.

Personal freedom consists of choosing our obligations.  Political freedom entails the understanding that our choices will often collide.  Only the tyranny of a single will – rule by a Fidel Castro, say – can prevent that from happening.  The frustration we feel because others disagree with our choices is the essence of political freedom.

If we embrace freedom as a political ideal, then we must shoulder certain obligations.  Chief among them is the assumption that others are as wise in their reflections and as virtuous in their intentions as we are.  On any given question, they may turn out to be right, and we may turn out to be wrong.  If we desire the power to persuade others, we must be willing to be persuaded.  Keeping an open, receptive mind is the only way to make room for all of us.

We can’t shrug off the burdens of freedom without vandalizing our own objectives and beliefs.  We can’t strike at those who block our political desires and not expect rage and rant in return.  None of this is particularly profound, but all of it, I suppose, is hard, being a question of character.  Still, every generation since the Civil War managed the trick:  and we can too, if we so wish it.  The alternative is to allow American politics to fly with reckless abandon into dark waters, stupefaction at the helm, and count off the seconds until the fatal hour.

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