I wouldn’t call myself friends with any of the athletes I have covered. I have never hung out with them outside of work, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care for their well-being — at least the ones who treated me with respect and realized I was just a person trying to do her job.
On Sept. 11, 2014, the Marlins were in Milwaukee playing a series against the Brewers. I didn’t make the trip for work. In fact, I was writing about a local high school football game. I got a call from my mom, but since I was busy finishing up my story, I waited to return it.
She called again. I didn’t answer. She then texted me, and I decided to call her back.
Giancarlo Stanton, the most-feared slugger in baseball, the same guy who I surprisingly found out has a huge crush on Emma Watson, was hit by an 89-mph fastball to the face. He was laying motionless on the ground at Miller Park. I suddenly felt sick to my stomach.
My boss started calling, so I told my mom I was going to put her on hold. He wanted a story. Now. I was more than 1,200 miles away without access to the play and he wanted me to write something?! I told him I was on freelance assignment somewhere and wasn’t watching the game.
When I got home that night, I caught the footage my parents recorded on the DVR. Tears started to fall down my cheeks as I saw his father, who I would interview a year later for my favorite sports story I’ve ever written, staring at his son lying prone in the batter’s box. The helpless yet calm demeanor. His teammates on the dugout railing watching in horror. The paramedics using the towel another teammate conjured to wipe the blood from his face. When they carted him off minutes later, he didn’t put a thumbs up like you often see football players do to assure everyone they are fine.
It was suddenly 3 a.m. and I couldn’t sleep. My stomach was in knots. A player I had covered since 2011, watched play the year before as a fan, not only had a career — but his life — in jeopardy. I was concerned for the person, Giancarlo Stanton. The one who said he “loved Hermione” and wanted me to somehow find a way to set him and Emma Watson up. Like I have those kind of connections!
Giancarlo, the 6-foot-6 beast who sends baseballs 500 feet away from home plate, was in some hospital, weak like the rest of us. He would turn out to be fine. He is once again wreaking havoc against opposing pitchers.
One of my favorite stories told the tale of Stanton and his dad for Father’s Day.
Stanton is a mystery. Not much is known about him other than he can hit home runs to the moon at the speed of light and has the body of a Grecian god. But I was intrigued by the man behind the muscles. The one who admitted to loving Sia’s “Elastic Heart” and singing along to *N SYNC.
It was a little after learning I would be laid off from FOX Sports Florida that I was determined to write my farewell story, one that would be remembered for some time.
With Stanton knocking 27 home runs for a pace of nearly 60 by early June 2015, I felt the subject matter of said memorable piece should be on him. I remembered the heartbreaking image of his father, Mike, watching helplessly from the stands.
So one day, I told the elusive Stanton my plans to do a feature on him and his dad. He said it would be fine. It took a few days after for me to finally get him. Stanton tends to be like Beetlejuice: You need to say his name three times for him to appear. And when I did, I got great material as well as his father’s number.
Stanton gave his dad a heads up. When I called, we spoke for over an hour! About everything. From keeping a young G in line to watching him flourish in the Majors. You could hear the pride in his voice. But he also wanted to know about me. He said my parents must be proud of what I had accomplished. As if what I did could compare to being an All-Star and the owner of the largest North American sports contract!
At the end of the day, it was a story of a father’s love for his son, how he groomed the man who plays right field and whose name appears on the backs of countless fans’ gear. It’s a surreal feeling, for sure.
I placed my favorite quote at the end of the story because it perfectly encapsulated the point I wanted to get across.
Obviously, you feel your father in the stands, but I like to think that he still listens to the radio just like he did when he’d take me,” Giancarlo said. “It’s like I grew into the player he would take me to go see and watch.
My other favorite story now has a tragic ending. I initially wrote this chapter before this past weekend’s horrific event transpired, and I type this update after having cried all day.
Jose Fernandez, the phenom right-hander who doesn’t lose at home and has an infectious smile, was still recovering from Tommy John surgery in early April 2015.
Hours before every game, the media is let into the clubhouse to talk to players for content. Most of the time, it’s hoping a certain guy shows up. Most of the time, it’s standing around watching whatever is on the TVs. Or cracking jokes with the guys actually hanging out by their lockers. Or trying not to feel weird in such a bizarre setting.
One day, I had finished speaking to someone toward the back of the clubhouse near Jose’s locker. After the interview, I noticed him holding an index card, which piqued my interest.
Hey, what’re you learning now? one of his teammates asked.
What is one responsibility that is only for United States citizens?
As others scrambled to get their gear before batting practice, I couldn’t keep my big mouth shut.
Serve on a jury.
Jose flipped the card over and smirked. He placed the card near his glove and moved onto the next question.
Like the dutiful and observant journalist that I strive to be, I asked him what he was studying for. Turns out the then-22-year-old, who escaped Cuba with his mother as a teenager, was going to have a civics test as part of the naturalization process to become an American citizen. His mother had already become one, and since he had extra time on his hands after surgery, Jose figured he should take advantage.
Sure, reporters love to have the scoop on trades and transactions. Give me the human interest one any day.
Even better was the opportunity to cover the ceremony a month later. There Jose stood — just another of the 141 South Floridians fulfilling the American Dream. His family watched on, beaming with pride.
This past Sunday after finishing a 5K charity run at Marlins Park, my friend Jess and I walked back to our cars to get a change of clothes. As I gathered my bags, the unthinkable happened. Jess walked around her car in shock with phone in hand.
Dude. Jose Fernandez died.
I had no response. I went to my phone and saw that I had received the same harried texts and voicemails. Just minutes ago, I was complaining about cramps hurting my time in the race. That I was going to kill Jess for forcing me to participate. That I was looking forward to drinking at brunch.
It was all so surreal. That was the word of the day. I kept wondering when we’d all wake from this collective nightmare.
I kept thinking of his mother and abuela, the one who was brought to the country a few years ago and got to see her grandson for the first time since he exiled from Cuba. His life story will be a movie one day. Saving his mother from drowning on the fourth attempt to flee. Becoming one of the most dominant pitchers of all time by the age of 24, after just a couple dozen starts in the Minor Leagues.
After we somehow managed to collect ourselves, Jess and I walked to the press entrance, where I worked from the pressbox for the first time all season. It wasn’t the way I envisioned returning after being laid off. Certainly not in my workout gear with the cloud of such a tragedy hanging over all of our heads. I took my extra change of clothes and put them on in the bathroom.
I gameplanned with Joe, my former supervisor and the Marlins’ writer for MLB Advanced Media. I went downstairs and took photos of fans in shock. When a man wearing a Jose’s Heroes shirt detailed what Jose meant to him and the community, as a fellow Cuban-American, I started breaking out into tears just like him.
It was about more than sports. Jose transcended that, like the greats do.
A makeshift memorial was created along the West Plaza entrance. A little girl, there with her father to see her first baseball game, laid out flowers. Inside the park, his No. 16 and a cap were placed on the mound. Jose’s name and number were on the jumbotron. I sat there in sadness when I noticed Dee Gordon crouch by the mound and stare at the rubber. A Marlins official came to get him, and I wondered why.
— Christina De Nicola (@CDeNicola13) September 25, 2016
When I walked into the dining room, I saw that the press conference had started. There stood the entire team, manager Don Mattingly, president of baseball operations Mike Hill and president David Samson. The players wore their black jerseys in mourning. Reliever Mike Dunn held Jose’s on a hanger.
I’m not one to cry. As I’ll tell anyone who knows me, I’m like the Cameron Diaz character in “The Holiday.” I don’t like showing vulnerability. My heart dropped when Mattingly choked up trying to describe the joyful, childish personality of Jose. Hill couldn’t finish answering what it meant to see Jose grow before his eyes — from a high school draft pick in 2011 to the dominant pitcher he had become. He pushed the microphone away, and the conference abruptly ended.
Monday night’s return to the diamond was both uplifting and somber. From the inspiring embrace with the New York Mets to Dee Gordon’s emotional leadoff homer to Justin Bour’s humorous first professional triple. Those in attendance, those watching on TV, experienced something for the ages.
— Christina De Nicola (@CDeNicola13) September 26, 2016
But what has stood out most to me during this whole ordeal is what the team’s unofficial captain, Martin Prado, said to represent all of the players during that press conference.
We’re not robots, we’re humans. And we feel.
If Giancarlo’s and Jose’s stories have taught me anything, it’s that sentiment. We’re all human. We bleed. We cry. We mourn. We aren’t invincible, no matter how famous, rich or talented.