By: Steve Miller – Sports Editor
The year was 2013, and my beloved Miami Marlins were a shell of a baseball team. They hadn’t been to the playoffs in a decade and were only playing games because of contractual obligation. It was the perfect time to lose faith in a baseball club. And then something happened.
Up to the big leagues came 20 year-old pitching phenom José Fernández, a sensational right-hander from Cuba. He lit up the ballpark with his electrifying fastball and smile brighter than the noon sun. His young leadership and bold presence restored my faith in not only the ability of the Marlins as a team, but also in the magic of the sport of baseball.
That’s why, when I learned of his tragic death on Sunday, September 25, I was affected more than I ever could have anticipated being affected by someone who I never even knew personally.
In a punch harder than a fastball to the gut, José’s life was taken in a speedboat accident. His accomplishments and dreams were swept away in the same sea that he so daringly crossed eight years ago on his journey from Cuba to the land of the free. Overnight, his 38 career wins and 2.58 career earned run average meant nothing. What mattered was a person, too big for this world, was gone..
That Sunday morning, a team, a family, a nation was left to grieve the loss of a shining spirit, a stellar athlete, a father and a friend. We were left without getting to say goodbye to a brother who unapologetically glowed with the inner passion he felt for the sport he loved. We were left by an athlete so accomplished, yet so humble that he would likely call his greatest achievement his American citizenship rather than any outstanding statistic of wins or strikeouts.
José Fernández was so much more than just an ace, he was the personification of the childlike spirit buried deep inside each one of us that we are lucky to see in ourselves once in a blue moon. Fernández put his on display every time he walked into a ballpark, illustrating his awesome admiration for the game and the American dream he lived.
Fernández’s success story began well before his first day in professional baseball. His journey to the United States was an obstacle for the ages on its own. He and his mother meandered through the dangerous network of traffickers, and tried and failed three times to cross the Caribbean Sea to Miami.
Fernández even spent some time in a Cuban prison as a young teenager before finally succeeding on his fourth attempt to flee Cuba. He and his mother departed from the south of the island for Cancun, Mexico—a route much less policed than the trip from Havana to Miami. During the trek, Fernández’s mother was hit by a wave and swept off the boat deck into the choppy sea. Daringly, José swam out to save her, paddling both of them back to safety.
Once on American soil, Cubans are free to stay. On April 5, 2008, Fernández stepped foot in Texas and never looked back.
From there, José settled in Tampa, Florida and worked with a Cuban-American coach to prime himself for high school baseball. He was selected by the Marlins in the first round of the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft.
In April of 2013, he made his MLB debut at the age of 20, and was the only Marlin selected to the National League All-Star Team that year.
When José burst onto the scene in 2013, he solidified himself as a competitor and a fighter. He had a will to win that’s rarely seen among professional baseball players, who so often get caught up in the doldrums of a 162-game season. Regardless of his performance, Fernández would always remain in the dugout, pulling for his team until the final out, restlessly sitting on the top step, banging the dugout padding in celebration.
Perhaps my favorite Fernández memory occurred in his final start of 2013, when he was so high on the game of baseball that an entire team tried to fight him.
In a September game against the Atlanta Braves, Fernández realized every ballplayer’s dream by hitting his first Major League home run. It was likely the most exciting point of Fernández’s career up to that point, and he took time to admire his blast before rounding the bases. But when he returned to home plate, Braves catcher Brian McCann confronted the pitcher for what was misunderstood as showboating.
“He told me, ‘Buddy, you can’t do that.’ I told him, ‘I’m sorry, the game got the best of me’,” Fernández said after the game. The confrontation escalated into the stereotypical professional baseball bench-clearing war of words. As usual, it did not result in any sort of physical altercation, but it was one of the first indications that Fernández’s personality would transform baseball.
At the conclusion of the 2013 season, Fernández was named the National League Rookie of the Year.
In 2014, he suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament and underwent Tommy John surgery–in perspective, that was easy news to stomach.
In his first start after recovery, Fernández hit his second career home run in a home win against the San Francisco Giants. Later in that 2015 season, Fernández set a Major League record with 17 consecutive home wins to begin his career.
And in 2016, he was again named to the National League All-Star Team. He made his final start on September 20, a 1-0 win against the NL East-leading Washington Nationals. Fernández pitched eight shutout innings and recorded 13 strikeouts. He called it “the best game he ever pitched,” according to teammate Martin Prado. He tallied 16 wins in 2016.
On the morning of September 25, the baseball world received the news of Fernández’s tragic death, shaking the sport to its core, and prompting the Marlins to rightly cancel their afternoon game. Meanwhile around the league, every team observed a moment of silence for Fernández before their game.
Miami second baseman Dee Gordon openly wept on the pitcher’s mound at Marlins Park, where a hat was placed in honor of the best pitcher to ever call that hill his own. Fellow Cuban big leaguers Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes voiced their admiration for Fernández and grief over his death. The Miami Marlins also announced they would retire the No. 16 in honor of their ace.
On the evening of September 26, the Marlins played their first game since the tragedy. Each Miami player sported a No. 16 jersey with Fernández’s name across the back, and the No. 16 was etched into the back of the pitcher’s mound. The Marlins defeated the New York Mets in one of the most emotional sporting affairs I’ve witnessed.
There was an outpouring of support on social media for Fernández, his family, the team, and the baseball world grieving one of its shining stars. But Marlins closer A.J. Ramos said it best in a video for FOX Sports Florida.
“I’m convinced this world wasn’t big enough for him. He needed more. People like him need way more than this world can offer.”
I’ll never be able to watch José pitch again on this earth, but I’ll never forget the energy he brought to Marlins Park, and the fervent excitement he brought to my experience as a fan every time he toed the rubber with his bright orange glove and childlike smile. But I know that if I can channel just a fraction of his passion for baseball into whatever arena life leads me, I’ll be a very happy individual.
José Fernández, thank you, and you will be missed.