Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly couldn’t stop crying during the painful press conference. Who could blame him for struggling with composure? Several Marlin players stood in the background, motionless and in disbelief. Later though, when it was time to play baseball again, the team surrounded the mound in an emotional tribute I’ve never witnessed before in professional sports.
Jose Fernandez, the Marlins All-Star pitcher who was admired by baseball fans from coast to coast, is gone. The flamboyant Cuban defector perished with two friends on September 24th when their 32 foot boat slammed into a jetty off the shores of Miami. A preliminary Coast Guard investigation indicated that the boat was traveling at a high rate of speed, although drugs nor alcohol was involved. It was the final chapter for Jose in a roller-coaster life that had touched so many people in such a short time.
“Jose played the game with so much joy, like a little boy,” said Mattingly, his voice full of anguish.
Jose Fernandez was one of a kind, sort of a cartoon super hero not only in this country, but all around the world. Yes, Jose loved to have fun and when he pitched, that didn’t change. The difference was his competitive nature. On the mound he was a caballo, a highly-strung race horse headed for the finish line, and that inspired his teammates to step it up to the next level. On a team with so many great players, including Giancarlo Stanton and the legendary Ichiro, it was clear that Fernandez was the heartbeat of the Marlins. Even when he wasn’t pitching, Jose was the ring-leader in the dugout and clubhouse. Fernandez was also fearless because he seemingly conquered the game of life at only 24 years of age. He thought he was invincible, like so many Latino sports idols with that macho charisma.
On three occasions, Jose Fernandez, his mother and a small entourage of supporters had tried and failed to flee from the clutches of Fidel Castro. Even with three strikes against them, it was mission accomplished on a fourth attempt, the group outdistancing the bullets of the regime’s maritime thugs. Still, there would be more trouble ahead.
“Someone fell overboard when we were at sea, and I dove in to help,” Jose would later recall. “I had no idea at the time that the person was my mom.”
Both mother and son made it to land safely and would reunite in Tampa with Jose’s father, who had immigrated years before. Then only 15, Jose would learn perfect English and was a standout hurler at his local high school. He also became an American citizen. In 2011, Fernandez was selected in the first round by the Marlins in the annual amateur draft, and the rest has become common knowledge among his millions of followers. Two years later, he would win the Rookie of the Year honors and reunite with his grandmother. This is the woman responsible for Jose’s early development in Cuba, observing his pitching mechanics while the youngster threw rocks against a backyard wall. It was a perfectly arranged surprise, with Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria somehow pulling off the visit in Miami with the State Department long before President Obama sought to improve relations with the Castro regime.
A setback occurred the following season, however, and arm issues resulted in that dreaded yet common procedure, Tommy John surgery. Always positive, Fernandez took the injury in stride, made a few commercials for “5 Hour Energy,” and completed rehab far ahead of schedule. During the current 2016 season, Jose was all the way back to form, sporting a 16-8 record with a 2.86 ERA and 253 strikeout victims over 182 innings pitched. Money-wise, Fernandez was earning $2.8 million but would have been arbitration eligible next year. Some experts have speculated that Fernandez might have had a deal looming worth as much as $200 million, although with Stanton’s record package on the books, could the Marlins afford that kind of agreement?
Why do so many brilliant young artists, musicians and athletes have to die before reaching their prime? It doesn’t seem fair. I guess all we can do is search within our faith for answers. Because I’m an old guy, I can’t help but compare Jose’s fate to the death of Richie Valens, the Chicano teenage heart-throb of “La Bamba” fame who died after a horrible plane crash in 1959. The tragic events are similar. The emerging details however, appear to be quite different.
Fernandez had reportedly been “stressed out” the night of the accident, and wanted to hit the water in his boat later on to “blow off some steam.” This was revealed in a text message sent to a friend of Eddy Rivero, who also died in the mishap. In addition, Jose had called Marcell Ozuna, the Marlins All-Star center fielder, and asked him to join along. Ozuna said he couldn’t go because he had plans with his wife and kids. This was a responsibility Fernandez was still trying to grasp, and a reported argument with his pregnant girlfriend many feel was what triggered the boat incident. Jose always sought solace on the water, where he was able to reflect and figure things out.
It’s crazy when you realize how important Jose Fernandez was to the MLB community. To my knowledge, all 30 teams hung #16 Fernandez jerseys in their dugouts in games played after the sickening news spread. When the Marlins took to the field for the first time after reality set in, Dee Gordon led off the game with a towering shot that landed in the right field second deck at Marlins Park. It was Gordon’s first jack of a disappointing season, and the All-Star second baseman sobbed as he rounded the bases.
Anyone who had the opportunity to meet Jose Fernandez, even if it was just to get his autograph, was truly blessed. His zest for baseball and for life touched everyone who crossed his path, myself included. I’ve done prior stories on Jose and continue to feel devastated by his loss. His infectious smile, leadership skills, instincts and overall talent will never be duplicated, at least while I’m still around. But I guess we should all be thankful for the short time he dazzled us on the diamond. Thanks for the ride, amigo. You made an impact in so many ways and your generation of players, present and beyond, will always be a part of your legacy.