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Chris Johnson Spoke About How Jose Fernandez Changed Him After Their Bench-Clearing Incident In 2013

I’m still in awe of the way that the Miami Marlins handled the passing of Jose Fernandez last month. It was an incredible night that I’ll never forget as a sports fan.

But Jose’s impact wasn’t just on the Marlins organization, it was the entire community down there in Miami. That’s why the Miami Heat wore warmup shirts with his initials and number before their first preseason game at home.

And also why the Florida Panthers will honor Fernandez before their home opener tonight against the New Jersey Devils.

Also, after Jose’s passing, I promised the Stoolies that I would blog all the awesome stories about him that came my way to help keep his memory alive. Sports Illustrated put out an excellent piece on Jose yesterday, and it’s worth the full read, but here’s the best part.

The video above is of Jose Fernandez’s first career home run, back in September of 2013. After Fernandez connected, he tossed the bat, pimped it, watched it, the whole deal. Gave a salute rounding third, and the Braves infielder who was freaking out over on third base was Chris Johnson, who later became Jose’s teammate in Miami earlier this year. Here’s what Johnson has to say about that incident now.

Still, some outsiders only saw Fernandez’s broad grin and demonstrative antics on field, and found it all maddening. Ignoring the fact that the Cuban game is far mouthier and confrontational, old-schoolers often cast Fernandez as epitome of youngster “disrespect” in the endless war over baseball’s “code.” Exhibit A was his first career homer in 2013, when he stared the ball over the leftfield wall, then spit near Braves third baseman Chris Johnson while heading for home. The benches cleared; Johnson rushed in to scream at Fernandez. He later apologized to the Braves, but the bad feelings lingered—right up until a nervous Johnson signed with the Marlins last January.

“I couldn’t have been more wrong,” Johnson said.

Fernandez was the first player to welcome him. “We can be friends now, but when I face you in live BP, I’m going to hit you,” he joked—maybe. Johnson loved it. Then day by day the son of a big leaguer, a lifetime carrier of the code, watched Fernandez go to work.

“How he treated me, how he went about his business, how he was the same when he won or lost, loud and smiling: It made me think this kid is not showing up the game,” Johnson said. “He’s not showing any player up. He’s out there completely free, having as much fun as possible. And then him getting out of Cuba, we talked about how he got caught and went to jail and didn’t see his mom, and didn’t know how long he was going to be in jail because they don’t tell you over there: stuff I never knew. I’m mad at myself for having that altercation….”

Johnson paused, eyes reddening. His voice cracked.

“He changed me,” Johnson said. “I smile. Before, I was always intense and took the game as a job and had to make it, and had to stay in the big leagues, had to get the contract, had to be the guy. No: You don’t have to do anything. You made it, you got to the big leagues, you’re in the United States of America, got a beautiful family. The game is fun. He played the game how I played the game in Little League. That’s how everybody should be in the big leagues.”

Asked if he ever told Fernandez that, Johnson shook his head. “No,” he said, so softly that he had to repeat it. “But I’ll tell him one day.”

Let that serve as a message to all the “unwritten rules of the game” guys out there. Baseball is meant to be fun. I think sometimes we forget that.