“I didn’t even know where to write my name,” he said. “I put my name in the wrong place.”
He asked a fellow student in Spanish for an eraser. The teacher reprimanded him for talking during a test. He knew so few English words, and only the bad ones, so he called her a bitch and got kicked out.
“She later fell in love with José,” assistant principal Frank Diaz says now. “Everyone does, you know?”
Baseball was the bridge. Fernández told the coaches he was pretty good in Cuba. Yeah, right, they sniffed; all the new kids say that. They put him in the least-impressive group to try out. He was insulted by that. But then he picked up a baseball ... and so much of the confusion evaporated on the spot.
His coach’s reaction?
“Wow,” Landy Faedo says now.
Everything changed then. “Before that, no one wanted to talk to me,” Fernández said. “Then they saw me playing and everyone wanted to talk to me ... and tried to speak Spanish. ...Girls would come up to me. I don’t like popular. I like low-key, humble. But popular is a lot better than lost.”
Next thing you know, at lunch, 20 and 30 kids were gathered around Fernández’s table, having learned how to play dominoes. Fernández helped Tampa Alonso High School win two state championships.
“He was throwing 94 in the championship game as a sophomore,” Faedo said. “That was up from 84-86.”
The explanation for the increased velocity?
“He had more food here than there,” the coach said. “And he put on weight because he wasn’t going everywhere by foot.”
Fernández’s is a uniquely Miami story, from rags to pitches, with an arm strong enough to pull back in even a scarred and betrayed fan base that keeps getting reasons to pull away. Humble and charismatic, with a child’s enthusiasm for joy, he is the only Marlins representative at the All-Star Game tonight, talking through a smile in the kind of accent that surrounds his home ballpark in Little Havana, and with a similar immigrant story.
“He sends me a lot of gifts, but I don’t live like a queen here,” abuela said from Cuba. “I’d live like a queen if I lived there with him. Every day, I pray to be there. It is harder than difficult.”
He is a first-round pick, and the owner of a $2 million bonus, and somehow already an All-Star even though he is not yet 21.
Only one thing missing from completing this American dream.
You can bet she will be listening Tuesday night in the darkness, up on her roof, searching for a connection 90 and a million miles away.