Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Jose Fernandez and the uncertainty of injured young stars

There aren’t many specific baseball dates that I remember from my childhood. I have plenty of baseball memories, of course, and I could go on for hours recounting them. I can’t really peg very many of them to specific dates on the calendar though. As I sit here in 2014, there really are only two dates that stick out in my mind. The first one is familiar to any Pittsburgh Pirate fan: October 14, 1992, the Francisco Cabrera Game, the Stan Belinda Game, the Day that Sid slid, Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, the game that launched the Pirates into 20 years of misery. The other day that specifically stands out isn’t a good memory, either: July 4, 1999.

Now, there are two things that you need to understand as a non-Pirate fan before you can fully grasp this story that I’m about to tell. The first is this: the early part of 1999 was not a terrible time to be a Pittsburgh Pirate fan. The Pirates held a huge fire sale in 1996, then contended in 1997 on a shoestring budget (the entire team payroll was actually below $10 million). They played poorly in 1998, but got off to a solid start with some exciting young players in 1999. By that point, the ownership crisis of the mid 1990s was over and construction on PNC Park in parallel with the 1999 season. It seems hilarious that we all thought this back then, but it really seemed like the dark days of the Pittsburgh Pirates were coming to an end.

The second thing that you have to know is this: Jason Kendall wasn’t always a gruff caricature of an old school baseball player. In the first three years of Kendall’s Pirate career, he hit .308/.393/.439. The only real bright spot on the disappointing 1998 Pirates was that Kendall really started to blossom that year, hitting .327/.411/.473 with 36 doubles and 12 home runs as a 24-year old. It seems crazy now, since most people are familiar with Kendall as the no-hit catcher of the A’s, Brewers, and Royals, but for the first few years of his career in Pittsburgh, Kendall looked like a Joe Mauer/Buster Posey type hybrid catcher. He was certainly the most exciting young player that the Pirates had in 1999, and he and Brian Giles formed a core that seemed like it would be capable of taking the Pirates somewhere.

In 1999, Kendall got off to a scorching start. Heading into the game against the Brewers on the Fourth of July, he was hitting .335/.431/.514. He’d already hit eight home runs and had 20 doubles and seemed on the verge of transitioning from All-Star to MVP candidate. The Pirates entered the game 40-39, still on the periphery of the NL Central and NL Wild Card race. Simply put, things were looking up.

The Pirates fell behind 3-0 early on in the game on the Fourth, and after a Kevin Young pop-out to lead off the fifth inning, the Brewers’ Steve Woodard had retired the first 13 Pirates that he faced. Kendall, who believe it or not was fast enough to steal 20 bases a year back then, decided to try and break up the perfect game with a bunt hit. He hit first base with his right food at a weird ankle and almost immediately crumpled in a heap on the first base line; his ankle was completely dislocated and the bone had popped out of the skin. I remember watching the broadcast live; players were recoiling him from in horror and it seemed like you could actually see his fibula sticking out of his leg from an overhead camera shot once the trainers had rolled his pant leg up. It was the most gruesome and horrifying sports injury I’ve ever seen unfold live (on TV, I mean), and I hope it stays that way.

What I remember next is the terrifying fear of the uncertain. Nobody knew how the injury would affect Kendall long-term. Would he still be able to catch? Would his speed come back? How does having your ankle pop out of your back leg affect your swing? How long would it take to recover?  Would it even be possible to recover?  On July 4, 1999, the Pirates were an exciting young team with a bright future. On July 5, 1999, it felt like absolutely nothing was certain.

I’m mentioning all this, of course, because I think about it whenever an exciting young player on an interesting young team suffers a serious injury. The Marlins have plenty of exciting young players without Jose Ferndandez (Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez), but Fernandez is the player that makes this young Marlin team pop off the page like a bright orange uniform or a ridiculous home run sculpture. Now, instead of Fernandez, there’s just a vacuum. There’s a sinking feeling that even though most Tommy John surgeries work out just fine, what if Fernandez’s doesn’t? On Monday, the Marlins seemed headed towards something new and good and fun, definitely in the near future if not this year. Today, they’re probably still headed in the same direction, but who can say for sure? If you’re a Marlin fan, it’s understandable if you feel like you’ve been punched in the stomach by this injury. I kind of feel like that, and I’m just a Pirate fan that loves to watch Jose Fernandez pitch (one of the articles I’d planned to write in my Small Market Chronicles this year was going to be about Fernandez and the joy of watching a great pitcher take the mound and do his thing, no matter what else is going on around the team). Sports fans never have any control over what happens with their favorite team on the field, but there’s very little that can make you feel as helpless as a serious injury to an exciting young player.

The postscript to the Kendall injury is a sad one. The Pirates tried to fill their catching void and panic-traded Jose Guillen to the Rays a few weeks later for Joe Oliver and Humberto Cota. Kendall seemed to come back fine from the injury in 2000, though he didn’t quite reach the heights that year that he seemed destined for in 1998 and 1999. In any case, it’s hard to say exactly how the ankle injury affected him long-term, because he injured his wrist badly in 2001. That injury sapped his power, and he was never the same hitter again. By that point, though, the Pirates had signed him to the largest contract in team history, and they were on the hook for $60 million through 2006. By the end of his time as a Pirate, he was a financial burden that was dumped off to the A’s for Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes (Rhodes was quickly flipped to the Indians for Matt Lawton). I don’t think things will turn out as poorly for these Marlins. We know the prognosis for Tommy John surgery, and most pitchers come back just fine. The talent base behind Fernandez on these Marlins seems awfully deep. The future is never certain for young baseball teams, though, and it’s a little less certain now for the Marlins. Not knowing where this is all headed now, that’s the hardest part.

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.