KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Don Mattingly has four sons. The youngest, Louis, is a toddler. The oldest, Taylor, is 31. And beyond that quartet, Mattingly is also helping raise two teenage stepsons with his second wife, Lori.
Mattingly has always treated fatherhood as a full-time job, even going so far as to cut short his career as captain of the New York Yankees in part to be around his boys during the trials of adolescence. It doesn’t get any easier as they grow up.
As the manager of the Miami Marlins, Mattingly now has 63 men entrusted to his care this spring and, if they make the big league club, throughout the summer.
When they all gather together Friday for the first full-squad workout, he said, he’ll deliver a message he has been waiting months to impart.
“You want them to realize we’re not bulletproof,” Mattingly said.
The Marlins’ grieving process isn’t far along, but by the baseball calendar, it’s also time to get back to work. Marlins pitchers and catchers went through their first workout of the spring Tuesday without their No. 1 starter and the face of their franchise.
They will keep Jose Fernandez close to their hearts this season. At home and on the road, his No. 16 will be stitched on the left breast of their uniforms. The team will leave his corner locker in the home clubhouse at Marlins Park empty as a reminder of the pitcher and the person they lost when Fernandez died Sept. 25 in a boating accident that also killed two other men.
“I don’t want to ever forget Jose,” Mattingly said. “He’s going to be part of us. He’s part of this group. The things you take from him are special things, that little kid in him. That’s what our guys took out of that. He wasn’t the perfect teammate. He’d get there late sometimes, and he had his little things like anybody else. He wasn’t perfect, but the way he competed and that joy he had when he played, that’s something that’s going to stick with this ball club.”
“We’re going to play hard for him and try to win for him,” outfielder Marcel Ozuna said.
As the Marlins’ grieving continues, though, Fernandez’s cautionary tale becomes a bigger part of the story, particularly because there has been a frightening rash of young baseball players killed in accidents, many of them involving drugs, alcohol or both.
Mattingly didn’t want to divulge too many of the details before he has a chance to address his entire team, but he said a warning about the dangers of drinking and driving or boating will be part of his message.
Of course, one could argue that message has been delivered before, and these kinds of tragedies, some of which are preventable, continue to happen.
“The message would be: You can’t make mistakes,” St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. “When you do, it could have life-or-death consequences. The organization talks about drunk driving and drug use all the time, and we have had people come in and talk about it. It’s probably just a lot of noise [to some], but there’s more to this noise than just noise. There’s a message. You always hope that, even if just one person hears it, it’s a positive.”
Mozeliak and the Cardinals have their own recent experience to reflect on. Outfielder Oscar Taveras died along with his teenage girlfriend in a car crash in October of 2014 in his native Dominican Republic. Taveras was driving with a blood-alcohol content nearly five times the Dominican legal limit. Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in the same country last month in a car crash in the wee hours of the morning; his posthumous toxicology report is still pending.
Because the Marlins last came together, details of Fernandez’s final hours have come to light. A toxicology report showed that Fernandez had cocaine and other substances in his body and a blood-alcohol content of nearly twice the legal limit when his boat smashed into a stone jetty. Authorities did not determine who was driving the boat.
Even as Mattingly spoke about his plans to warn his team about the hazards of drinking and operating heavy machinery, alcoholic drinks were being served behind him at the Marlins’ charity golf tournament Monday in Key Biscayne, just across the Rickenbacker Causeway from downtown Miami. The parking lot was so jammed with cars, some people parked in the rough lining the fairways.
“Every decision you make has consequences. When you talk to your kids, you talk to your wife, you talk to your players, you talk to your husband, you just have to talk about consequences,” Marlins president David Samson said. “Sometimes, you don’t get a second chance. That’s the saddest part of this, is there’s no second chance. The permanence of that is what rings in my ear every day.”
Mozeliak remembers discussing drunk driving with his club shortly after Taveras’ death. Even that wasn’t the first time the Cardinals had had to do so, even in the previous 10 years. Pitcher Josh Hancock was drunk when he died in a car crash in St. Louis in 2007.
Mozeliak remembers the strange feeling of mourning Taveras amid the hope that typically blooms around teams this time of year.
“The players are vibrant, there’s life everywhere you look, especially in the spring,” Mozeliak said. “The grass is green, the leaves are on the trees. Then you’re trying to understand and really square up what death means. It’s not easy.”
Several Marlins players Tuesday talked about the passion and energy Fernandez brought to their team.
“We get paid to play a game, and sometimes we forget that, and kids are watching us,” Marlins closer A.J. Ramos said. “When kids were watching Jose play, they got excited. They’re like, ‘That’s like me. That’s how I play.'”
If they followed Fernandez’s story to its awful end, kids couldn’t help but come to a different conclusion at that point.
Said Samson: “The lesson we can take with us is his passion on the field, and controlling the passion off the field.”