Jose Fernandez & Arnold Palmer: What They Can Teach Us

In death, Fernandez and the King remind us how to live

Death, as anyone who pays attention knows, does not play favorites. It comes, often without warning, to the young and old, the rich and poor, the famous and anonymous, the sick and healthy.

But rarely does Death do what it did Sunday, when, within the embrace of a single date, it reminded us about the cruelty of its whimsy, of its cold indifference to human sensibilities.

Actuaries tell us roughly 7,200 Americans die on any given day. But Sunday, these two stood out: Jose Fernandez and Arnold Palmer. A ballplayer and a golfer. An heir apparent and the King. One young, exciting and rising toward greatness, the other old and iconic, his achievements enshrined in museums and memory.

Only the day before, it would have been safe to assume these two shared almost nothing. Now that they are linked, bitterly and eternally, by the date of their passing, their similarities merit, as the referee says, further review.

Their athletic prowess — one fulfilled and venerated, the other in that sweet blooming place where potential yields to accomplishment — is almost beside the point. One achieved greatness; the other seemed well on his way. These are small considerations beside their larger legacy, an inheritance we would be wise to invest.

Each plainly adored life. But acknowledging only that is insufficient. Who, when push comes to shove, doesn’t love life, and cherish the quickening spark?

In this solemn aftermath, however, we ache a little more from the knowledge that we lost two who understood what it meant to express that affection unreservedly.

By all accounts, Fernandez was joy personified. Delivered from the Castros’ oppression in one of those small boats crowded with desperate souls yearning, as the inscription reads, to breathe free, Fernandez became a charismatic schoolboy sensation and a state champion at Tampa’s Alonso High, a high draft pick, a rookie of the year and a two-time All-Star Game pick for the Florida Marlins.

Miami Marlins wear #16 jerseys as they stand around the pitching mound during a pre-game ceremony honoring pitcher Jose Fernandez before a baseball game against the New York Mets, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Miami. Fernandez died in a boating accident Sunday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Miami Marlins wear #16 jerseys as they stand around the pitching mound during a pre-game ceremony honoring pitcher Jose Fernandez before a baseball game against the New York Mets, Monday, Sept. 26,

For all of this, he remained, at 24, a kid who loved being part of the clubhouse, an animated presence in the dugout, and post-game fireworks shows.

He was an established major leaguer with a hall-of-fame fastball, but to hear others tell it, his entire demeanor suggested he was having a constant pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming experience. The one knock on him, said ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian, was that he wasn’t as exuberant on the road as he was at home, and therefore didn’t pitch nearly as well — possibly, Kurkjian explained, because he respected the game too much to offend other fans.

So, even Fernandez’s shortcomings were endearing.

Palmer, too, was electrifying. Some say he saved golf from the country club set. Others say he invented golf. The two are not mutually exclusive.

He came to Americans like a thunderstorm to a parched prairie, raining, and reigning, at a moment of stultifying sameness. At the end of the 1950s, the rest of golf might have been “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” but, even on our shadowy, black-and-white Silvertones, we knew Palmer was playing in full Technicolor.

Golfer Arnold Palmer from Latrobe, Pa., poses in 1970. (AP Photo)
Golfer Arnold Palmer from Latrobe, Pa., poses in 1970. (AP Photo)

Now, whether Palmer came along at just the right time, or the moment was ripe and Palmer appeared — that is a question for philosophers. All the average American on the street knew was that Palmer was one of us. He puffed cigarettes, got red in the face and, when the mood fit, flung his visor.

He played like we played, too. Taught by his dad to “hit it hard, find it and hit it hard again,” Palmer didn’t so much play golf as he attacked it. Someone wrote he looked like a guy wrestling a snake.

Grabbing the spotlight from sweet, smooth swingers passed down from Bobby Jones to Sam Snead to Bobby Jones, Palmer could as easily have been harvesting hay.

And why not? He looked like a working guy, sort of disheveled and blocky, with a stevedore’s forearms. If there had been a rumor he’d spent his youth on a dock unloading ships, we’d have believed it.

But for those who enlisted in Arnie’s Army and thrilled to his Everyman antics, Palmer was a swashbuckler who brandished his clubs like they were sabers. He was Errol Flynn in slacks, who might have swung down to the first tee on a rope or a chandelier.

He won seven major championships, and lost an eighth, the 1966 U.S. Open, by blowing a fat lead on the back nine at Olympic in San Francisco Arnie-style, in pursuit of the tournament record. Hacking away, Palmer won 62 times on the PGA tour, ranking fifth all-time, and inspiring amateurs to name a side bet after him: a player scores an Arnie by making par without ever being in the fairway.

It was what he did off the course, however, that galvanized fans for generations. Palmer was the sunrise. He was good cheer. He was the perpetual host. No one ever heard of Palmer refusing an autograph or spurning an interview. If he made millions trading on his reputation for sincere amiability — and, boy, did he — no one begrudged him a dime.

Thus did word come from the celestial review booth that, on Sunday, we didn’t lose just two greats from the world of sports. We lost kindred spirits, good guys who loved life, and showed us how to keep the romance going.

Godspeed gentlemen. As we stand to bid you fond adieu, we raise our chilled glass filled with iced tea and lemonade, spiked with just the right amount of Caribbean rum, a freedom-celebrating Arnold Palmer.

Veteran journalist and center-right blogger Tom Jackson has worked for newspapers in Washington D.C., Sacramento, Calif., and Tampa, Fla., racking up state and national awards for writing, editing and design along the way. Tom also has been published in assorted sports magazines, and his work has been included in several annual “Best Sports Stories” collections. A University of Florida alumnus, St. Louis Cardinals fan and eager-if-haphazard golfer, Tom splits time between Tampa and Cashiers, N.C., with his wife, two children and a couple of yappy dogs.