Every game, abuela climbs into that sky in Cuba. It is about as close as she ever gets to feeling the freedom her grandson fled to find. Miami Marlins pitcher José Fernández has sent her so many American treasures while trying to bridge the heartbreaking gap now between them. Plasma TVs. Cellphones. A new mattress. He even managed to have air conditioning installed in grandma’s house from afar. But you know what Olga Fernández values most? That radio.
If only for nine innings at a time, it allows her to cross that ocean and feel like she is right next to the All-Star she raised. The island of Fernández’s youth rots a little more by the day, and it is stuck in the Dark Ages in many ways, including the televising of baseball. So, because reception isn’t great downstairs, up into that sky this 68-year-old lady in Santa Clara climbs with that radio on the nights her All-Star grandson pitches, up there closer to the stars, an old Cuban woman praying that there is no rain while listening to Marlins games alone on her roof.
“I get so emotional,” she said in Spanish from her home. “I cry and everything. He takes me with him. It is like I can see the United States through his eyes.”
José calls his grandmother “the love of my life ...She’s my everything,” he said. “There’s nothing more important than her.” So he enjoys getting the scouting reports from her in their near-daily phone calls.
“She tells me, ‘The Phillies are good, but you are better,’ ” José said. “She says, ‘Here’s the game plan: We’re going to go at them hard and away, and low. Stay down in the zone. Breaking balls in the dirt, but not too many because those are bad for the arm.’ I told her the other day that they have me throwing 95 to 100 pitches a game, and she screamed, ‘What?!’ I don’t think she knows I’m 6-3, 230 pounds now. She still sees me as 15 years old.”
That’s not true, actually. She last saw José at that age, before he defected, and didn’t even see a new photo of him again until January, when she stared in disbelief at a neighbor’s computer.
“My little boy, my love, he is a man now,” she said. “He’ll always be little to me, but I couldn’t even get my arms around him to hug him now, he’s so big. He looks so ...”
And the next word she uses tells you a little bit about that gap between our countries.
A fearful place
What was worse, José?
What scared you more?
The two months you spent in a dirty Cuban prison after being caught again trying to defect?
Or the first two months with freedom in America?
“Being here,” Fernández said.
How can that be?
“At least in jail I could defend myself,” he said. “But here I felt so helpless. Overwhelmed. I’ve never felt anything worse than my first few months here. Jail felt better than that, and I was in with a guy who killed seven people.”
The difficulty of this transition is hard to explain to people who don’t understand, though besieged Cuban phenom Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers might try if he had any grasp of English while trying to ward off the build-them-up-tear-them-down-rinse-repeat cycle. Cubans often get here and can’t find commonality anywhere but the diamond, where so many of them happen to be fluent. Fernández didn’t know the language, the customs, the technology, the people when he arrived here at 15, and he missed his grandmother terribly.