José Fernández: Gone Too Soon
If someone gave you a book that had the story of your life, would you read the end? That was what Miami Marlins ace José Fernández tweeted out almost exactly one year ago. One year later, early in the morning of Sunday, September 25th, he and his two best friends set out on a fishing expedition off the coast of Miami Beach. Fernández, who was less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery, was given the day off in order to rest his arm. Sometime around 3 o’clock in the morning, the boat, going at full speed, hit a group of rocks and flew approximately 30 feet in the air before landing upside down against the peninsula of rocks. Fernández and his two friends died on impact.
José Fernández’s story began in Santa Clara, Cuba. His family was middle class, but that is nothing close to what middle class American life is like. At age 14, José and his mother attempted to defect from Cuba. Three times they tried and three times they failed. As a result, 14-year-old José Fernández found himself in jail, alongside some of Cuba’s worst criminals. He was locked up with murderers, rapists, and other vicious criminals.
Yet when he was released at 15 years of age, he and his mother plotted another defection. This time, however, instead of heading towards Miami, they set out towards Cancun from the southern side of Cuba, which wasn't patrolled by as many government officials. Unfortunately, this did not mean that their journey would be less dangerous. Their boat rocked violently amongst the extremely rough waters. One night, a wave crashed over the boat and swept José’s mother off and into the dark and dangerous water. José dove right in and swam to save her. Against the violent current, José was able to reach her, carrying her on his left shoulder slowly but surely back to the boat. José was a hero. And yet, that story is only one of many that epitomize the person he was.
Fernández was drafted by the Marlins 14th overall in the 2011 MLB Draft. With a fastball that nearly touched triple digits, a slider that ended up so far away from hitters that teammates nicknamed it, "The Defector," and a downright nasty changeup, Fernández would not stay in the minors for long. On April 7th, 2013, just over 5 years since he first set foot on U.S. soil, Fernandez made his MLB debut against the New York Mets.
His first start was a sign of things to come. With his parents in attendance, Fernández first began to establish himself as Miami's ace by striking out eight hitters in only five innings of work. The 20-year-old Fernández then went on to post a 12-6 record (including an undefeated 9-0 mark at home) with an absurdly low 2.19 ERA in route to appearing in his first All-Star game and winning the National League Rookie of the Year award.
Amidst all this sudden success, Fernández was still missing something. On the outside, it appeared as if he had it all. He was good-looking, charismatic, young, and had a smile that could light up the darkest room. But, when interviewed in June of 2013, he told the world that the one person he wanted to see him pitch, his grandmother, still remained in Cuba. So, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria knew he had to do something, and he delivered.
On the evening before the announcement of the Rookie of the Year awards, Loria set up an interview with José at the Marlins facility. Separately, he had arranged for José’s grandmother to arrive in the United States. So, unbeknownst to José, his grandmother was now in the States. When she surprised José during the interview, it created one of the most touching moments that I have ever seen. It is all chronicled in a tear-jerking video, which can be seen here.
José would lose most of the next two seasons due to Tommy John surgery. However, unlike most pitchers who would take that time off and spend time away from the game, Fernández showed up to the ballpark day in and day out, even though he was in a sling, and cheer on his teammates. His genuine caring for people, whether they were his teammates or members of his local community, is what set José apart. You would see him in the dugout every time the Marlins played a game, regardless of whether he was pitching or not, and support his teammates. José was like a kid on Christmas Day whenever he was at the ballpark, even if he was not pitching. His enthusiasm for the game was second to none. He made the game exciting: he would celebrate when he struck someone out and slam the railing of the dugout whenever his teammates would get a hit. All the while, smiling as big as he could.
After he was sidelined with an elbow injury for the better part of the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Fernández returned this past year and was even more dominant before. He would go 16-8 with a 2.86 ERA and would be in the top 10 in the National League in every major pitching statistical category (ERA, Wins, Strikeouts, WHIP). Not just that, but Fernández led the MLB in strikeouts per 9 IP with an astounding 12.49 mark that puts him 5th all time behind pitchers like Randy Johnson, Pedro Martínez, and Kerry Wood.
But Fernández was much more than just a great pitcher for the Miami Marlins. He was a leader in the clubhouse, a joy to watch, and an idol in the local Hispanic community. Unlike most players, when Fernández was out injured, he would still show up to the ballpark day in and day out to cheer on his teammates. It was this enthusiasm for the game that set Fernandez apart in the clubhouse. Plus, he always played with a sense of flair: He would celebrate when he struck someone out and slam the railing of the dugout whenever one of his teammates got a hit, all while smiling as big as he could.
Fernández was so exciting to watch that whenever he took the mound, it was called “José Day” in the local community. Attendance at Marlins Park would increase 30% on the days he would pitch; and Fernández would always come through. Fernández owns the highest home winning percentage of any starter in MLB history (29-2) and the second lowest home ERA. Simply put, he was not just entertaining. He was basically unhittable.
His final start on September 20th would be, according to José, the best one he had ever had. He faced off against the eventual NL East champion Washington Nationals. In front of his family and thousands of adoring fans, Fernández would strike out 12 of the 27 Washington Nationals he faced in a 1-0 win. His final pitch was a nasty 90 mph changeup that caused one of the best hitters in the MLB this season, Daniel Murphy, to ground out to second place, preventing either of the two runners on base from scoring and preserving the Marlins’ 1-0 lead. Fernández came off of the field exuberant and ecstatic, more excited than I had ever seen him. That was just the way he played.
When the Marlins learned of Fernandez's tragic passing, they immediately cancelled their game against the Braves that day to allow the team to cope with this loss. Players from around the league took to social media to express their condolences and support Marlins players. Fans put together a makeshift memorial for José right outside the stadium. The Marlins honored Fernández by painting his number, 16, into the back of the pitcher’s mound and placing his hat right on top of it.
The Marlins came into their following game against the Mets, one that Fernández was supposed to start, in a bad way. Before the game began, the Marlins players were seen in tears. Every Marlins player was wearing Fernández’s number, 16. During the moment of silence for Fernández, the crowd was dead silent and the camera went from player to player, showing nothing but anguish, agony, and tears.
What broke the silence was possibly the most poignant rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” I have ever heard. It echoed throughout the stadium, played by a solo trumpeter. The scoreboard in Marlins Park showed many pictures of José during his time with the Marlins along with the music. In every single picture, he was smiling. Marlins players could be seen visibly shaken, tears running down their faces like water out of a spigot. After the National Anthem, the stadium was dead silent and the broadcast showed a picture of José and said “José Fernández: 1992-2016” and then just his number, 16.
As a fan, I admired José Fernández. I loved his energy and enthusiasm, and I loved to watch him pitch. Although I never watched him pitch in person, I am thankful that I at least got to see him pitch on television. In a sport that a lot of people find boring, he made baseball entertaining. His antics, his child-like mannerisms, and his distinct smile made watching the sport so refreshing. José was a bright shining star in a seemingly old galaxy, which makes his passing so hard for so many people. For baseball fans, they have lost someone who, even in only four years at the big league level, made a considerable impact on the field. For Cubans, he was a symbol not only of hope but also of success. And for the Miami community, they have lost a community leader, someone who took the time to go and do charitable work around the community, talking to its residents as if they were his friends.
MLB.com published a very touching and comprehensive video about his career in the big leagues. In it, you can see what kind of a player he was. Click here to watch it.