On Wednesday night, I received a text from Brian Kraft, a Marlins scout whom I have never met.
Kraft was the area scout who signed Jose Fernandez in 2011, when the Marlins made the right-hander the 14th overall pick out of Braulio Alonso High School in Tampa.
“Obviously, this has been a really tough time for all, but for those of us who had relationships with him, it has been especially difficult,” said Kraft, who still works as an area scout for the Marlins, covering five Midwest states.
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Kraft explained that he had written a farewell to Fernandez and was encouraged by another member of the Marlins’ organization to reach out as a way of expressing the scouting community’s feelings on a “truly special talent and person.”
Here is what Kraft shared:
“I always knew that getting into this profession would allow me a chance to see talented players. A select group would get an opportunity to play in the big leagues, and even fewer would get to impact games at the major-league level. But it never crossed my mind that there was potential to sign a player who would impact the lives of so many, from so many different walks of life, in and out of baseball.
“To do that, a person must have more than physical talent, admirable characteristics and other countless qualities. It takes the accumulation of all of that and more to be the face of a team, an organization, a city, a family and the future.
“These qualities did not arrive once you reached the major-league level. These were apparent when I met with you and your family as a high school senior – the story of how you came to this country, the confidence you had in your ability, stated as if fact, and the excitement you exhibited when talking about the game.
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“Your goal was not to be a high pick; that was expected. It wasn’t to pitch in the big leagues; that was a matter of time. You were on a mission to become the best with the work ethic, plan and the support in place. I wasn’t just impressed that an 18-year-old said that he knew exactly what he wanted and how he wanted to get there, or that he truly believed what he was saying. I was wowed that an 18-year-old said these things instantly, making me a believer. The second I left and got in my car, I called my cross checker and stated with certainty that, “We have pick 14.” Because you were different.
“I saw you pitch in All-Star Games on TV and in front of the tens of thousands of people, I’ve also seen you pitch in a high school game on a Saturday morning in front of ten. Regardless of who was there or the level of competition, you always gave those in the stands the same energy, effort and excitement, appealing to every spectrum of the crowd.
“In a timeless sport that constantly is searching for a someone or something to bridge the gap between the values of yesterday and today, your genuine passion, competitiveness and flair for this game made, ‘Jose Day,’ a can’t-miss events for young and old.
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“I remember your first high-school outing in 2011. It was a standing-room only crowd filled by what seemed like the entire city of Tampa and the entire scouting world. It was, ‘Jose Day,’ before, ‘Jose Day.’ The average person, let alone a high school senior, would have been lying if he had said there wasn’t an ounce of nerves at play pitching in that atmosphere. Most would have sat down the line with earphones plugged into their phones while their parents paced behind the stands, overcome with the stress of the moment.
“You welcomed the moment by shaking the hand of each scout at the park giving the feeling of, ‘You should be here, watch what I’m about to do.’ Your family sat front row, as they did each game, not daring to miss a single pitch because they, like everyone else in the park, did not want to miss something special.
“Fast forward two years, to April 7, 2013. I’m flying to New York to watch your major-league debut against the Mets. From the time I got the call, through the entire flight and waiting downstairs to grab a quick hello before taking my seat, my stress level was at an all-time high. Not because I didn’t think you could succeed. It was more due to wanting you to get your career off to a good start.
“After you arrived and we exchanged the standard, ‘Congrats,’ I asked how you were feeling. I will never forget your answer: ‘Come on, I’m pitching against the Mets today, how are you?’ It was just like your first game in 2011. It dawned on me that this is where you belonged. The city, the stage, the players in the other dugout – they were never going to be too big for you.
“You may have been numb to the situation. You may have been relaxed simply knowing the unfathomable difficulties you faced coming to the States. You may just have had too much fun playing this game to think anything negative, or maybe it was a combination of them all. What I realized was that it didn’t matter what anyone thought, felt or said because nobody believed in you the way your believed in yourself. After you were pulled from the game, I walked to the left-field store and bought a 2013 All-Star Game hat. You had made me a believer again.
“Your talent allowed us the opportunity to see greatness every fifth day. Your ‘it factor’ gave us the chance to see something special every time you touched the ball. Your love for the game made us kids again and your strength, confidence and ‘want-to’ gave us someone to stand behind, knowing you could lead.
“With so many of us watching from afar, what is now apparent is how indescribable your impact was on our organization, the community and the baseball world. I am most devastated for your family and friends who lost an irreplaceable part of their life.
“I also hurt for generations to come that will miss witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime player and person.
In this day of social media and sabermetrics, the rarity of someone like you, what you accomplished on the mound and the magnitude of what you represented cannot be explained in hash tags or numbers alone. The pain of your absence – of fans not having the fortune of seeing you compete – will never go away. But what will come in due time is our ability to appreciate what we did get, which was simply greatness.
“Originals, those who transcend the game cannot solely be described in numbers and text. They are the rarest breed of people. They are referred to by their first name only. Their breaking ball is nicknamed. Life stops when it’s their day. They are icons. Their legacy, love and passion for life, baseball and competing will be written about, told and passed down forever.
“I never would have thought the Marlins making the right pick in the 2011 draft would change an organization, the sport and my life. I’m honored that my family got to be a small part of your career and grateful for giving us the chance to witness the start to one of the greatest careers in baseball history.