In my opinion | Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Young star exits on a high note

 

gcote@MiamiHerald.com

Give Jose Fernandez credit. The kid knows how to fashion a dramatic exit.

He won yet another game Wednesday night, hit a long home run, and then starred in a bench-clearing brouhaha that had the Marlins Park crowd on its feet and roaring like it hadn’t all season long.

This was Fernandez’s last start of the year because the Marlins are treating their thoroughbred with caution and care, and he ended his seven innings’ work with a strikeout (of course), slowly walking off the mound to soak in a pulsing, swooning standing ovation from an adoring crowd of 25,111.

I’m not sure how legends are born or how mortal men somehow materialize as folk heroes, but Fernandez’s Wednesday night would constitute a pretty fair start.

But the drama was just starting.

Afterward old-school manager Mike Redmond blasted his young pitcher for disrespecting the opponent with his delayed home run trot and his spit in the direction of the Atlanta Braves’ third baseman. And Fernandez was left to call himself “embarrassed, like I don’t deserve to be here.”

The mea culpa from the Miami side was almost comical in its somber excess.

“I’m not happy. It really ruined the night for me,” said Redmond.

And Fernandez — you’d have thought he had committed felonious assault or high treason.

The problem with the Marlins’ postgame reaction is it overshadowed not only the night but the rookie season Fernandez has had, and that wasn’t right. The kid is 21 years old. His learning isn’t finished. He let emotion get in his way in his final start. That’s it.

Better to focus on this:

Jose has barely finished waving goodbye and I miss him already. The last good reason to watch the Marlins in 2013 left us hungry for more.

He departs with a 12-6 record after Wednesday’s 5-2 victory over the Braves — despite a last-place team. He ends with 187 strikeouts in 172 innings, with a 2.19 ERA, and with a terrific case for National League Rookie of the Year.

And he leaves us with the lasting image of a not fully matured young pitcher who not only buckles batters’ knees but brings as much competitive fire as skills.

He paused a bit too long to admire his own home run before he began his trot, yes — “I walked for three steps and I thought, ‘What am I doing!?’ ” he admitted — and appeared to spit in the direction of third baseman Chris Johnson’s feet as he headed for home. Braves catcher Brian McCann admonished Fernandez as he crossed the plate, but not angrily.

“He just said, ‘Buddy you can’t do that,’ ” Fernandez said. “Talking to me as a dad teaching a kid.”

Still, benches emptied, with no punches thrown but some seriously macho posturing.

When it ended Fernandez strode with shoulders squared. He might have breached an unwritten baseball rule or two, but the fans loved it. The pushed around Marlins were pushing back. A dismal season found a little swagger and spine.

And Jose Fernandez was why.

The kid was not at his best Wednesday and still dominated, a mark of greatness.

My mind cast back, but selectively, because the company must be rare.

It was 1983, and a curly haired quarterback out of Pitt named Dan Marino was about to change everything.

It was 2003, and a compact point guard out of Marquette named Dwyane Wade was about to do the same.

It is 2013, and this is the company Fernandez keeps. In South Florida’s pro sports history there is Marino, Wade and now this 21-year-old pitching phenomenon to start any conversation about the best, most dynamic athletes we have seen here.

Marino set records and Wade brought championships and I don’t know for sure that Fernandez will do either, but I know that finding out feels like a gift we have been given, one we’ll delight to slowly unwrap.

He alone made Marlins games the kind of exciting they haven’t been since the 2003 World Series season.

Fernandez is the face and hope now of a franchise desperately needing both. If he can’t help fill Marlins Park and generate excitement for this team, can anyone?

Owner Jeffrey Loria betrayed trust and deeply alienated the fan base. Despite that Fernandez drew a solid crowd that gave a proper sendoff to a young man who made the All-Star team and will, if the voters get it right, be NL Rookie of the Year. They handed out placards that read, #JOSE4ROY. Marlins teammates wore the slogan on T-shirts.

Like Marino and Wade, Fernandez has a chance to change everything.

“Down here in Miami we needed a positive story, a guy to emerge, and Jose is the guy,” Redmond had said before the game. “It’s been a pleasure to watch him.”

Fernandez is the quintessential Miami story — Cuban defector starring for Marlins, in a ballpark in Little Havana — but he is more than that. His story is bigger than that. His last start happening to come on Sept. 11, the date when terrorism turned into a font of patriotism, leads us to reflect how Fernandez is the modern, sports embodiment of the ideal that first took root on Ellis Island:

America as a shining light representing the freedom worth chasing.

Fernandez chased it a long time before he finally arrived in every way.

At 15 he was jailed in a Cuban prison related to failed attempts to defect, a child who’d done no wrong lumped among adults who had.

“I had to learn pretty fast in not the best way to learn,” he told us this week on 790 The Ticket. “Around people who kill people.”

He came to the United States speaking zero English. Now he is fluent.

His is a story you to cheer. Add the fact he is a bona fide No. 1 ace and you have a superstar in the making.

He is a player, and an image, you build a franchise around — and I say that even after the emotion and immaturity that drew Redmond’s anger and embarrassed the player himself.

The immaturity will leave him, but the emotion mustn’t.

Fernandez’s constant, boyish grin and good nature belie an intense competitiveness, a fire that flamed high late Wednesday.

“I got goals in my locker,” he says.

He reached the ones for strikeouts and earned run average. He fell just short on victories, a bad team having something to do with that.

“I could be better,” he says.

His aim for next season? Are you ready?

An ERA under 2.00. Oh, and a Cy Young Award.

Those goals sound preposterous. Also, quite reasonable.

The immaturity that made Fernandez’s exit so dramatic and controversial Wednesday night takes nothing away from the splendid season now just behind him, or all that lies ahead.

Read more Greg Cote stories from the Miami Herald

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