VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – Miami Marlins players wear a black circle containing the number 16 on their jerseys, just above their beating hearts.
That patch reflects the reality of their present situation: Life goes on after death — even in pro baseball.
It is in memory of the late Jose Fernandez, the Marlins former dominant ace pitcher and ebullient team leader who died tragically late last season in a boating accident off Miami Beach.
This campaign finds the ballclub he left behind still mourning Fernandez’s loss while simultaneously attempting to move forward as a team.
It is not an easy task.
But, to their credit, the Marlins are pushing through this difficult time in a most admirable way.
“I look at it like Jose’s a part of us,” Miami manager Don Mattingly told MAS. “You take the best out of Jose, what we learned from him and carry that forward.
“We honor him by playing with the kind of joy he did. So, he lives with us.”
Added first baseman Justin Bour: “Obviously, that’s something that’s going to stay with us for the rest of our lives, as horrible as it was.
“At the same time, you have to try to move forward and do your work as a family and honor his memory.”
All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna echoed Bour’s healing-as-a-family approach. After all, most of the present Marlins had advanced through the minor leagues as a unit.
“It will help us do our job right now,” offered Ozuna. “We know we gotta play together, do things all as one.”
That togetherness helped the Marlins get off to a solid start this campaign. But then they hit a prolonged rough patch, during which they dropped 13 of 17 contests.
As a result, like the rest of the National League East, the last-place Marlins trail the white-hot Washington Nationals by a bunch.
Mattingly, in his second season as the Marlins’ skipper, says it’s imperative that his young ballclub remember that the 162-game big league season is a marathon, not a sprint.
“It’s important for them to keep mentally right — how you gotta just keep your focus, keep goin’ down that long road,” he said.
Even minus Fernandez, the talent is definitely playoff contender quality.
The Marlins showed their potential during the first four months of last season.
The Fish, as they are affectionately called in South Florida, were in the thick of the NL East chase until the wheels fell off in August.
Miami’s position player core is extremely solid, made of up of youngsters rapidly developing into true stars (see system products like outfielders Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton and Ozuna as well as catcher J.T. Realmuto and Bour).
But the problem with Marlins hitters is the same as last season: while they are sixth in the National League in batting average and seventh in home runs (through Monday), they are in the bottom third in runs scored.
“We’ve got to be better at tacking on runs,” stated Mattingly. “Last season, we were second in the league in hitting but 22nd in runs scored.”
“Our bullpen is our strength,” Don continued “But we’ve had too many games where our starters go five innings and our bullpen was asked to hold a one-run lead the rest of the way.
“You’re gonna lose way too many games that way.”
The biggest Marlin question mark entering this season was, of course, their starting pitching, minus Fernandez.
This past offseason, the Fish signed ex-Kansas City Royal Edinson Volquez as a free agent and traded for Dan Straily to try and offset the loss of Fernandez somewhat.
But that hurling pair, steady in seasons past, has yet to click as Miami had hoped.
Straily has a 1-3 record with a 3.56 ERA (best among Marlins starters).
Volquez, meanwhile, is winless in five decisions and has a 4.41 ERA.
Despite his team’s recent struggles, Bour still believes this current Marlins outfit has postseason potential.
“Absolutely,” Justin emphatically told MAS during a clubhouse chat. “You look around and see the talent in this room.”
“This group has been together for three years or so. I’m a firm believer that you can’t just piece together a team,” Bour opined.
“Real good teams are a group of people that grow together, care about one another, guys who have bought into having a winning attitude and mentality.”
“That’s the way we take it,” Bour said proudly.
When Mattingly looks at his ballclub, he sees similarities with other recently successful MLB outfits.
“I think we saw in Kansas City and Cleveland what happens when a good group of core guys grows up,” offered Don. “You kind of get there, knock on the door and fall out. But all of a sudden, they took off.”
“I think that’s what our ballclub has a chance to do, be that team that makes a jump,” stated Mattingly.
“We’re at that point, so we’ll see.”
Things can change quickly in MLB. Scintillating starts like Washington’s can be replaced by June swoons.
The Marlins appear to be far too talented to stay down for very long.
Every season, it seems, a team mounts a furious second-half comeback to fight its way back into playoff contention. The Marlins hope it will be them this campaign.
This is where the ongoing influence of Fernandez might help.
Ozuna, who slumped badly last season after an all-star first half, illustrated how he plans to apply Fernandez’s approach to playing the game this time around.
The 26-year old Dominican is off to another torrid start (11 HRs, 29 RBIs, .314 batting average). He’s optimistic about maintaining that level of performance in ’17.
“Last year I learned about how you have to be patient and just do your work,” Ozuna explained to MAS.
“I’m working on my mind to just play hard and enjoy the game — like Jose did.”
Safe to say, there is now some of Jose Fernandez to be found both over and in the hearts of the Miami Marlins.
Contact MAS at email@example.com