Column: Recent tragedies show sports are more than just a game

Josh Peick

It’s a phrase that any athlete has heard one time or another during their playing careers, usually coming after a loss to help console a young athlete.

While in essence, sports are a game, there are times when it feels much more than a game, especially after a tragedy in the community. What transpired this past week, both nationally and locally, is proof that when a community is looking for solace after a tragedy, sometimes the best medicine is sports.

Last Sunday, Sept. 25, Jose Fernandez, a 24-year-old all-star pitcher for the Miami Marlins, died in a boating accident in the early hours of the morning. The Marlins organization canceled Sunday’s game in response to the news.

Fernandez’s death hit the organization and players hard, but no one was hurting more than second baseman Dee Gordon. A close friend of Fernandez, Gordon was seen in an empty Marlin’s stadium on Sunday standing and eventually dropping down to his knees around the vacant pitcher’s mound.

The next day, Gordon, wearing a number 16 Fernandez jersey as everyone on the team did, led off the bottom of the first inning against the New York Mets in Miami. Gordon, a natural lefty batter, took ball one from the right side of the plate, flawlessly mimicking Fernandez’s batting stance as a tribute to him.

Two pitches later, from the left side of the plate, Gordon hit his first home run of the season. He rounded the bases with tears in his eyes and broke down as he headed back to the dugout. A fitting tribute to a close friend, but the magic was not limited to Miami.

In St. Louis, Aledmys Diaz gave Fernandez a similar tribute. Diaz, a short stop for the St. Louis Cardinals, grew up down the street from Fernandez in Cuba. The two were on the same little league team.

While in a close playoff race, Diaz missed the Cardinals’ Monday night game to be at a private service for Fernandez in Miami. The next night, Diaz walked up to the plate with the bases loaded in the fourth inning.

On a 2-1 fastball, Diaz hit his first career grand slam in to the left-field bleachers. Diaz pointed to the sky as he touched home plate and was met by his teammates before he made it back to the dugout.

While the nation was mourning the loss of Fernandez, the West Michigan area was grieving the loss of Holland Christian High School faculty member and freshman soccer coach Kevin Witte.

Witte died Tuesday, Sept. 27 following injuries sustained in a car crash the day before.

The following day, the Holland Christian varsity men’s soccer team played against Holland High School in a rivalry matchup. Holland had a two-goal lead in the second half, and the Holland Christian players, who had trouble simply walking onto the field to play, became desperate to get a goal on the board.

Holland Christian’s Nate VanSlooten, who took Witte’s death especially hard, found the back of a net with a chip shot over the Holland goalie. The crowd, which was relatively quiet for most of the game, exploded with excitement after the goal.

At that moment, I was looking at the kids’ faces and the reaction from the crowd, and instead of mourning the loss of a coach and friend; they were celebrating a goal and a life.

The Holland Christian team showed their community courage by stepping on the field, and gave the crowd something to cheer about in a time when simply continuing on is difficult.

From home runs to scored goals, this past week has shown us that sometimes the best way to grieve and celebrate a life is simply to play on.