Death Strikes the American Dream
Before this past weekend, two distinctly different people from two distinctly different sports could easily have been described as active participants in the American Dream. One was on the road to greatness and was just about to really reap the benefits of success and stardom. The other had already lived a life of greatness and was living out his twilight years as an elder statesman and legendary figure of his sport and perfect example of a man who had personified the idea of a person living the American Dream.
The two people we are talking about, of course. are Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez and legendary golfer Arnold Palmer. Unfortunately, the sports world received some very sad news this past weekend when it learned that these two major stars from their two respective sports had died. The two stars could easily be desribed as being bookends on the scale of participation in the American Dream. One on the way up and one having completed it.
The death of Arnold Palmer was not shocking, as he had lived a full life to age 87 and had been in poor health in recent years. The death of Fernandez at age 24 was shocking. The net result of their two untimely deaths? Overwhelming sadness.
During his prime, Arnold Palmer was one of the ten best pro golfers who ever played the game. He might not have been as good as Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan or Tiger Woods, but he was easily the most popular player who ever lived. While other golfers would attract large galleries when they were near the lead, Arnold Palmer would attract much larger crowds even when he was out of contention. And when he was near the lead, the crowds following him (they came to be known as Arnie’s Army) would be massive.
Palmer won seven majors during his prime winning years and was in contention for many others during that period. And when he was in those prime contending years, it happened to coincide with the advent of television’s starting to cover golf tournaments. Arnie, with his exciting, aggressive approach to the game, was the natural star that captured the public’s imagination at a time when people watching TV were looking for stars.
When Arnold Palmer started golfing, the sport of golf wasn’t taken that seriously. Golfers were not paid well at all for winning tournaments. Very few golfers made very much money from commercial endorsements. By the time he was done as a player, the sport’s payouts had risen dramatically. And Arnold Palmer, who was so universally liked and trusted by the sporting public, became the most admired athlete in the sports world by the advertising community. He became one of the key faces of American sports during the 1950’s and 1960’s. He became the American Dream.
When Arnold Palmer mattered the most in the golfing world, the major tournament known as the British Open (or The Open) was not respected much by American golfers. They routinely skipped the tournament because the travel expenses they’d incur overseas were more than the prize money they’d get for winning. Arnold Palmer, recognizing the historical importance of the tournament, decided in 1961 that he would need to play the British Open. He won it, and from that point on, American golfers came across the pond and supported the tournament. Arnold Palmer single-handedly made the British Open relevant again.
The beloved Palmer was one of the three honorary “starters” at the Masters tournament where he, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player would hit a ceremonial tee shot to “start” the tournament. When he was too frail and sick to even participate this year, a lot of people feared he wasn’t well. It then was not a shock to people when they learned he had died this past Sunday.
Arnold Palmer’s last few years alive could best be described as those of a legendary, iconic figure being celebrated everywhere he went, for everything he had done. He had entered the sporting arena and succeeded at an extraordinary level. He was historical. He was beloved. He did great things in his post-playing career (such as create hospitals in the Orlando area for children), he was ALWAYS kindly to the sports fans who adored him, and he was an incredible statesman for the sport of golf.
Because of his fading health at the time, it was not a total surprise to hear that he had died. But for the public to see the passing of such a beloved and legendary figure, it was painful to have to experience. Arnie will be missed, but he will NEVER be forgotten.
Jose Fernandez left his native Cuba when he defected to the United States to pursue the American Dream. An incredibly talented player, he worked his tail off to become a major league baseball player by the age of 20, signing with the Florida (later to change their name to the Miami) Marlins. And oh what a player he became.
In 2013, he was the National League’s Rookie-of-the-Year. The next two years he had some arm trouble. He had to have Tommy John surgery on his right arm and came back this year to be better than ever. In baseball, an ERA under 3.00 is considered to be really good. Fernandez’s career ERA was 2.58. His career pitching record was an excellent 38 – 17. A pitcher that strikes out batters at a rate of better than one per inning pitched, Fernandez struck out 589 batters in his career of 471 innings. He was so good as a pitcher, many experts had him pegged as the BEST young pitcher in baseball.
In fact, there could be an easy argument that he was one of the top three pitchers in baseball. The unfortunate thing for Jose Fernandez is that he was just about to become eligible to become a free agent. And in major league baseball, a pitcher as good and as young as Fernandez would likely command a multi-year contract for somewhere around 25 million dollars a year. He not only would have achieved the American Dream, he would have hit the lottery.
Jose Fernandez wasn’t just appreciated because he was a good pitcher, he was loved by fans, teammates and competitors alike because he was an extremely likeable and charismatic baseball player. Before this past weekend, Jose was only 24 and the future ahead of him was absolutely golden. The stratosphere above the sky was his limit.
That is why it was so shocking to hear the news that he had died Saturday night/Sunday morning in a tragic boating crash. A man who was just about to bear the fruits of the American Dream with a golden future ahead of him was cut down in his prime by a decision to go boating.
It was one of those risk/reward situations. You want to go out and have fun racing around in your boat. You risk a boating accident the faster you drive. Especially at night. And then it happened.
Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident. A man in the middle of living the American Dream, a man who should have been alive and thriving, is no longer alive. He will forever be remembered as that guy that could have done so much, but instead had died way too soon.
Two great members of the sporting community died last week. The world will go on, but it will just be a little sadder with Arnold Palmer and Jose Fernandez now gone from it.