Sunday was a day of mourning for many. Legendary golfer Arnold Palmer and rising star pitcher Jose Fernandez both lost their lives before the afternoon came to a close, the former due to complications from heart problems and the latter in a tragic boating accident. And while the two could not be more different in many ways, the shared date at the end of their tombstones is not the only thing these two figures had in common.
Palmer, who passed away at the age of eighty-seven, was one of the most beloved golfers the game has ever known. His ability to relate to people from all walks of life and his genuine appreciation for those who supported him helped usher in the golden age of the sport. The US Golf Association described him as their “greatest ambassador” who “inspired generations to love golf by sharing his competitive spirit . . . The game is indeed better because of him, and in so many ways, will never be the same.”
Baseball had similar hopes for Fernandez, who turned twenty-four in July. He was a Cuban immigrant who tried three times to defect to America before finally finding success on a fourth fateful journey, in which he also saved his mother from drowning. He spent two months in prison following one failed attempt, but said that his transition to life in America as a fifteen-year-old who spoke no English was far more difficult. As ESPN commentator and Miami Herald columnist Dan LeBatard describes, his was a story of success that gave generations of fans, and especially those of Cuban descent, hope and a reason to care about a team that had frequently betrayed their emotional investment.
However, Fernandez was more than his heritage to baseball fans, and fans of sports in general. As one of the best pitchers in the game, his young career was on a Hall of Fame trajectory. Still, the joy with which he played will likely be the most enduring aspect of his memory. As Dodger’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy said of Fernandez, “We were all jealous of his talent, but deep down I think we most envied the fun he had while doing something so difficult.”
LeBatard summed it up well when he wrote that “Fernandez had so much joy and enthusiasm and gratitude and passion pouring from him—for being in this country, for getting to do what he loved, for squeezing every ounce of fun out of the day—that it could move even the repressed and the sour . . . He acted like a little boy in a sports world soaked with adult problems and cynicisms that can make us lose sight of the root verb at the center of what he did for a living. To play.”
I don’t know if either of these men had a personal relationship with Christ, but the legacy they left behind speaks volumes about the impact that such joy and the appreciation for each day we are given can have in our culture. While their stories couldn’t be more different, their attitudes towards life were largely the same, and both men had an influence that will extend far beyond their time on this earth as a result.
When our time comes to an end and we finally enter the presence of our Lord and Savior, will those we leave behind say the same of us? One of the primary reasons that such joy resonates so strongly with our culture today is that it often seems to be in short supply. Whether it’s the growing racial tensions, the divisive political climate, or the fear of terrorist attack, people have legitimate reasons to lose sight of the blessing it is to simply be alive. As Christians, however, we must never give a reason for that to be said of us.
Joy should be one of the most foundational aspects of our lives as followers of Christ. Jesus prayed that we would experience it (John 16:24), and it is constantly available to those who would have it through our connection to the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). And because such joy is based on our relationship with Christ, we will never encounter a circumstance or trial that can take it from us. The only reason a Christian will not have the joy just described is because he or she has freely chosen to give it up.
Arnold Palmer and Jose Fernandez held tightly to the joy that comes from the simple blessing of being able to wake up each morning and do what they loved. Their example inspired others to do the same. Will yours?