FORT MYERS, Fla. — His friend was gone, but the world kept spinning. So Giancarlo Stanton journeyed off to see that world, to find perspective in that world.
He has learned to “enjoy the moment,” he says, forcefully, “and understand this is the best time of my life — and have joy with it.”
How did he get to this place? Where did he turn to find the solace and healing he needed after Fernandez’s shocking death last September?
On the streets of Barcelona and the beaches of Brazil. At the foot of the pyramids in Egypt and in the alluring smell of bakeries in Paris. It was a trip that took him to eight countries on three continents last fall.
“It’s the longest trip I’ve ever done,” Stanton says, “and the most meaningful.”
STANTON AND HIS teammates had just spent the final week of their saddest season trying to mourn and play baseball at the same time. But “there wasn’t any real mourning,” Stanton says now.
The nation gawked. The cameras never stopped pointing. There were so few moments for private reflection that “sleep,” Stanton says, “was really the only peace we had.”
“You’d hit BP and come off,” he says, “and everything was [the media asking], ‘Hey, how was it without Jose?’ You had a game, and it was, ‘How was it without Jose?’ You went to go eat, or you went to the team bus, it was, ‘How was it without Jose?’ He had his funeral or this or that, and everything was for everybody else. It wasn’t for us to heal from it or recover from it.”
So a few days after the season, Stanton climbed aboard a plane to Brazil with two of his closest friends in baseball, Marlins closer A.J. Ramos and their former teammate, Los Angeles Angels pitcher Ricky Nolasco, in search of “the freedom we needed.”
By “freedom,” Stanton doesn’t mean “escape.” This was a trip, he says, “for a purpose.” Because everyone needs to heal.
“It doesn’t matter what level you’re at,” Stanton says. “The most powerful people in the world would still need some type of healing process when something like that happens.”
“You’d hit BP and come off, and everything was [the media asking], ‘Hey, how was it without Jose?’ You had a game, and it was, ‘How was it without Jose?’ You went to go eat, or you went to the team bus, it was, ‘How was it without Jose?’ He had his funeral or this or that, and everything was for everybody else. It wasn’t for us to heal from it or recover from it.”
Over the next month and a half, Stanton and his friends traveled to Brazil, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Romania, Dubai, Egypt and Israel. They thought of their friend, Jose, and allowed their pain to wash away. But they were determined, Stanton says, to not be overwhelmed by sadness or emotion.
“That was the No. 1 thing,” he says. “We had plenty of time to do that — and in front of every camera in the country. And honestly, I don’t think it could have been emotional because we were drained, man. That took so much out of us, having to go through that. So we wanted to be over that hump, not look back anymore in sadness.”
But they also needed to find ways to pay tribute to their friend. That spirit led them to collaborate with an artist in Brazil, Tito na Rua, to paint a mural dedicated to Fernandez on a wall in Rio de Janeiro.
After two days of mulling what that mural should look like, they decided it should prominently feature the nickname Stanton had hung on Fernandez early on: “NIÑO.” The mural also includes the Brazilian/Portuguese expression “SAUDADES.”
“They explained it to us,” Stanton says. “It doesn’t have a specific meaning because of the language difference. It’s more like, ‘I love you. I care for you. I miss you.’ Kind of like all of those things in one. One of the most powerful words to express love and affection.”
They posted a photo of their work on Instagram, they entered the geotag in their phones so they could find it if they ever return to Rio, and off they went to explore the world.
While in Brazil, Giancarlo Stanton painted a mural in honor of his friend José Fernández. (via giancarlo818/Instagram) pic.twitter.com/rjIpUpl6RG
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 17, 2016
As this 6-foot-6, 245-pound superstar walked the streets of countries in which no one knew his name, he was gathering strength and purpose for the baseball season ahead. He gained perspective by chatting with shopkeepers and bakers about their lives and struggles.
“I live a fantasy,” he says. “We’re in a fantasy world here on a baseball field where we play. We’re a very fortunate group of people. But a good majority of the world doesn’t live that way. They have different things that are important to them. They work in a different way.
“I noticed a lot of family businesses out there: bakeries and different types of shops and carpenter shops. And that’s all they know. That’s just as important to them as my life and what I do is to me. It doesn’t mean I’m better than them. It doesn’t mean they’re better than me. It’s just another way of life. And I enjoy seeing that.”
Stanton has spent weeks digesting all of this — the pain of Fernandez’s death, the sights and sounds of those other worlds he visited. He has condensed that experience into a realization that he believes will help him through the season ahead and the seasons that follow.
“Our problems,” he has concluded, “are not real problems.”
STANTON’S SEVEN-YEAR CAREER, to this point, is an intriguing jumble of ups and downs, injuries that boggle his mind, the richest contract in baseball history, home runs that seem almost superhuman and slumps that remind him he is all too human. Now, at 27, Stanton has come to understand that it is his ability to deal with every twist and turn that will determine how far he can travel in this sport.
But after seeing a friend die, at age 24, Stanton is fueled by the resolve to “appreciate every single day I’m out here.”
“Even if everything hasn’t gone the way I’d like over the last few years,” he says, “still make the best out of it rather than dwell on things.”
He has won a home run title and a Home Run Derby. He also has spiraled through a three-week stretch, just last season, in which he went 7-for-67 with 32 strikeouts.
In any given week, Stanton can look like the most dangerous hitter of his generation or the most befuddled. But his agent, Joel Wolfe, says Stanton’s most important trait is that “he’s incredibly consistent as a person.”
“One thing that’s huge with him,” Wolfe says, “is that it’s very important to him to act the same when he’s hitting .200 as he is when he’s hitting .300. And I mean act the same off the field, with his teammates, with his family, friends, everything. And that is incredibly hard to do when you’re him and you have the biggest contract in the history of the game and everybody knows it.”
There is no escaping that contract, all 13 years and $325 million of it. It sets the bar for what this guy needs to be so high that “the only way to justify it,” Wolfe says, “is to be Michael Jordan, where you have numbers and championships.”
What Stanton has instead is mostly a highlight reel of home runs that fly where few home runs have flown before. The frustration of not achieving more seeps out: “If I’m not injured, then we’re 20 games out — one or the other. It hasn’t been fun.”
There has been something different about him this spring, though, that has struck those around him. His team’s president of baseball operations, Michael Hill, went so far as to punctuate his review of the 2017 edition of Giancarlo Stanton with three attention-getting letters: M-V-P.
“You’d be smart [to pick him],” Hill says. “There’s a focus there that makes you really excited.”
“I live a fantasy. We’re in a fantasy world here on a baseball field where we play. We’re a very fortunate group of people. But a good majority of the world doesn’t live that way. … It doesn’t mean I’m better than them. It doesn’t mean they’re better than me. It’s just another way of life.”
It isn’t only the president of baseball ops who sees it. Less than 30 seconds into a conversation about Stanton, assistant hitting coach Frank Menechino says, succinctly: “He’s on a mission.”
Stanton is totally on board with that assessment. Here’s how he describes that mission:
“To be where I should be. I should be on top. If I’m on the field, if I’m healthy, I prepare to be the best. I prepare to perform like the best. I don’t need to be Mr. Watch His Numbers. But if I’m out there, I need to be the best player on the field.”
Last year, he knows, he was anything but. He hit a career-low .240, had a career-worst .815 OPS and somehow slugged under .500 (.489). He got so out of whack at one point that he struck out 16 times in 18 at-bats in May. With no prompting, Stanton sums up that embarrassment with this piercing label: “God-awful.”
But the Giancarlo who strode into spring training four weeks ago — and then into the middle of Team USA’s WBC lineup — has bigger plans.
“This is his team now,” Hill says. “I think that’s the one thing that is very apparent, just how he deals with his teammates, how they look to him. It’s his team. And I think he knows that.”
ON THE NIGHT last September when the Marlins played their first game without their friend, Jose, it was Stanton who saw the tears and fears in the eyes of his teammates before the game. So he rose up to address them, right there on the mound, because someone needed to. He is proud of what he did and said. But he is sensitive to the narrative that it was the first time he had shown that type of vocal leadership.
“People see that and act like that’s the first time I’ve ever spoken in my seven years,” he says, the irritation rising in his voice. “But just because you’re not out here making speeches, making sure all the video cameras are around, that’s the main thing I don’t like, actually, is doing things because, ‘Oh, the cameras are here, so let me do it just so people see that.'”
When asked if he feels his place among his teammates is different now, in part because of Fernandez’s death but also because of who he is and what he represents, Stanton says: “I can agree with that.”
“If something is off, if there’s something that we need to address, I’ve got to be there to be that focus, to be the one to handle whatever’s going on,” he says. “Which [I’ve] done, but maybe a little more on the vocal side rather than maybe underneath.”
“Play as hard as you can. And enjoy your time on this earth.”
He has always wanted to lead, his agent says, “but he wanted it to be natural.” The leaders he looked up to, Wolfe says, were the Chase Utleys of baseball, the “low-key badasses, who are fierce competitors but aren’t looking for the adulation.”
If his team needs more than that from him now, Stanton is prepared. But he also knows they need one another.
Next week will mark six months since the night Fernandez’s boat crashed into the rocks. The team he leaves behind — and its biggest star — have resolved that “he’s never going to leave us.”
“Going through that all together was good for us because now we understand,” Stanton says. “We know that’s as hard as anything can be on a baseball field. Nothing can be harder.”
Yet Stanton believes something good can emerge from something terrible. His vision for 2017 is to have this life-changing experience turn into a journey that will honor the legacy of the teammate he lost. And he has thought a lot about how to characterize that legacy.
“Enjoy life to the fullest,” Stanton says. “Play as hard as you can. And enjoy your time on this earth.”