Two top MLB talents, gone too soon, live on under new names in a video game

San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

José Fernandez died Sept. 25 in a boating accident when his speedboat slammed into a jetty off Miami Beach and overturned. Two companions also lost their lives. Baseball — and not just Fernandez’s teammates on the Miami Marlins — plunged into a deep, public mourning. Only 24, Fernandez was one of the game’s brightest and youngest talents, who carved through opposing lineups with a flame-trailing fastball and an easily forgiven delight.

My first reaction to the news Fernandez had died was embarrassingly trivial and self-absorbed: Wait a minute. Who’s going to win the Cy Young in 2018?

That is what was taking place in my career in MLB The Show 16 on my PlayStation 4, where Fernandez was my pitching nemesis. He perched on every major accolade from the moment my created player entered the league, even winning both the MVP and the Cy Young Award in a year in which he was traded to Arizona. No matter what my fat knuckleballer spun, no matter how many groundouts I could pull like a rabbit from a hat, the lithe Fernandez and his sleek pitching repertoire dazzled the game’s virtual voters and took home all the hardware.

He was my rival — in the context of the video game, anyway, I honestly felt like his peer. Fernandez would always be better looking and more prolific in his linescore, and he would always get the better of me. It’s one thing to admire a top performer as a fan. It’s another to feel like you’re really competing with him. Video games that license real players’ appearances now give us that conceit.

MLB The Show is the only sports video game that lets players import a saved career from a previous version of the game. It allows users to pursue the longest seasons and the longest careers in professional sports to Hall of Fame immortality, with authenticity. The feature was introduced two years ago. I have a one save file dating back to 2014.

Bringing a save forward in a sports title is not a simple task for the game. Users have effectively created their own reality with an old version, and the newest one must somehow square that with present day rosters. With the death of Fernandez, and then the Kansas City Royals’ Yordano Ventura in January, MLB The Show 17 would provide the first test of how the game copes with the unforeseen and tragic absence of recognizable players.

So when MLB The Show 17 arrived for review last week, I was eager to see how it would address this problem. It’s really a simple and quiet change. The deceased player is renamed and his appearance randomized, though the ringer still brings all of his predecessor’s skill to bear upon the league.

In my playthrough, that means Fernandez is now "Jason Bird” of the Arizona Diamondbacks. In another game save, Ventura is now “David McKenzie.”

Two top MLB talents, gone too soon, live on under new names in a video game San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

If Fernandez was my player’s nemesis, then my created player was Ventura’s. We’d been promoted to the Royals in the same year, back when I started the save file in MLB 14 The Show. My meteoric advancement there thwarted his rise. Indeed, in 2017 of our shared reality, he was a spot-starter assigned to the bullpen instead of Kansas City’s rotation, with 470 career strikeouts.

I noticed, however, that each time a save file was imported, the dead player would be renamed and re-created. This means that the spirit of José Fernandez and Yordano Ventura live in a video game in infinitely different manifestations, my console and yours.

Nothing can bring them back and nothing could ever comfort the loved ones who lost them. But for their fans, or the ones who play video games anyway, it is nice to think of these men as old gunfighters living under a new identity, escaping to a foreign place and thrilling its public with the same feats of skill, their fame still spreading, through the unverifiable claims of a stranger.

Roster File is Polygon’s column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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