José Fernández was just a teenager when he etched the number “99” on a mirror inside his home in Tampa. It wasn’t a favorite number. It wasn’t a lucky number. It was the speed he wanted for his fastball.
“When he was starting high school, he wrote that number on the mirror, so as to see it when he got up every morning, and to remind him that every time he combed his hair or looked at himself, that it was the number of miles per hour he wanted to reach on his pitches,” said Ramón Jiménez, José’s father.
“José has always been like that. When he fights for something, he never lets down his guard.”
It is that kind of determination and drive that put Fernández — a 20-year-old who five years ago fled communist Cuba in a speedboat and is now a rookie pitching sensation with the Miami Marlins — in this year’s coveted All-Star Game. Named to the National League squad late Saturday, he’s the youngest Marlin ever to be named to the All-Star team.
“It’s just incredible,” Fernández said on Saturday from St. Louis, where the Marlins are playing the Cardinals. “When they told me, I just started sweating and my hands started getting cold. They still are right now. I was just sitting around and thinking this is just incredible. I’m going to do the best I can.”
It was just a little more than three months ago that he made his pitching debut against the New York Mets. In a few short months, he has become one of the main attractions in an otherwise dismal Marlins season.
The Marlins, under public scrutiny after finishing last in 2012 and releasing valuable and experienced players, are thrilled at having another potential Dontrelle Willis on the mound.
“I look at José and I can’t avoid comparing him to the D-Train. I see it in his look, his confidence, in the joy with which he looks at life,” said Marlins manager Mike Redmond, who caught for Willis in that magical season in 2003 when the team won the World Series and Willis was named National League Rookie of the Year. “Every time he pitches, something almost magical happens, something good is expected and his teammates feel that way. José gives us a big chance of winning.”
On a team with barely 32 wins, the kid from Santa Clara, Cuba, has a 5-4 record and a 2.72 ERA — the best of any rookie and 10th-best in the National League — yet nothing describes his dominance better than these statistics: 94 strikeouts in 92.2 innings.
Beyond the numbers, Fernández goes to the mound with an aggressive attitude. At 6-foot-two-inches, and weighing 240 pounds, he wants to intimidate the batter, from the moment he raises his glove to cover his face to when he delivers the pitch — as if he were going back to the times of a Roger Clemens or a Bob Gibson.
“At home we used to tell him that he was a big child, but the truth is that José has always behaved as an older person and his maturity startled us,” said Jiménez, who took on the role of a father when José was only 3 months old and has remained at his side ever since. “Since the first time I had him in my arms, I felt something special for the kid. Now I see him pitching, wearing the Marlins uniform and I’m so proud, because the road to get here has not been easy for him or me.”