It didn’t take him any time to become one of us, a Miamian.
José Fernández — a baseball prodigy from Cuba who fled the island by boat — embraced this city as if he had been born into it, and the Miami Marlins as if it were the hometown team he’d grown up cheering on to two World Series wins.
Miami loved its star baseball pitcher back.
He was fun to watch, not only for his talent but for the warmth he projected, his jovial spirit on and off the field, his generosity to fans, and his love of family. At a time when fans were mad as hell at the team owner and management, Fernández happily put a positive face forward, smiling and expressing gratitude.
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“I’m so lucky to be here,” Fernández often said with sincerity and a disarming Cuban Miami accent.
He never tired of showing how grateful he was to be in this country, how miraculous his good fortune to be in the city of his dreams.
It’s stunning and sad that he died in the waters where he said he liked to go to find serenity. The 32-foot boat he was riding in with two friends capsized after hitting a treacherous jetty barely visible at high tide at Government Cut between Miami Beach and Fisher Island. There were no survivors.
This is every parent’s nightmare.
He was only 24, his death a loss amplified by the news he recently posted on social media of his girlfriend at the beach sporting a baby bump. He won’t get to be a father to his child, and his child will miss experiencing the joyful man who played like a kid in the field, giving it all and wearing his emotions without filters.
We woke up to the heartbreaking tragedy of it all, an unspeakably sad day not only for South Florida’s sports community but for everyone who was touched by the story of a boy who fled his country by boat when he was 15.
His story resonated in Miami, city of refuge.
Born in the central city of Santa Clara, he was raised by his mother, Maritza, and his grandmother, Olga, a devoted baseball fan Fernández called “the light of my life.” She was his first baseball teacher. He had to leave her behind when he fled Cuba with his mother on a boat on his fourth try.
That night on the high seas, someone fell over board. Fernández didn’t hesitate to jump in, only to find it was his mother whose life he was saving.
The grief of his mother and grandmother today is unimaginable.
Fernández first settled in Tampa and struggled to fit in, not knowing a word of English, but then he picked up a baseball — and the rest is history. He became the Marlins first-round draft pick in 2011.
Oh, how fans celebrated when Fernández become Rookie of the Year in 2013. He was more proud, however, of being finally reunited in Miami with his beloved abuela Olga, who had not been allowed to leave Cuba after his defection. He called her “the most important person in my life,” and in the sweetest way, “a baseball freak.” In Cuba she had listened to his games in Miami on a radio from her roof, praying for good weather so she could hear clearly.
“This is better than being in the big leagues, better than winning, better than anything,” he said after embracing her, his baby face in tears.
This was supposed to be Fernández greatest year yet.
“Every time he pitches, the largest crowds come,” my diehard Marlins fan brother told me, still speaking of Fernández in the present tense. “He’s second in strike outs in the National League this year.”
His career was only beginning, and before Sunday, our only fear was that Miami might lose him to another team, like so many others fans had come to love.
He never wanted to let his hometown fans down — and wherever he is now, I hope he feels the love and appreciation.
“Just completely overwhelmed by emotion this morning,” David Herrera, a Special Olympics coach for Miami-Dade, posted Sunday morning on Instagram along with a photo of Fernández and one of the kids he took to the game against the Nationals on Tuesday. “Pitched what they called probably the best game of his career. Can’t believe we witnessed his last game. After the game, all the players kept walking by and not one would stop to sign autographs. Then out comes Jose. Gives his mom, grandmother, pregnant girlfriend a kiss, and comes straight to us to sign autographs and take pics. Great human being. Such a pleasure to watch man.”
And that’s why we loved him: He had heart. He gave back.
At the news of his death Sunday’s game was canceled, but Miamians arrived at Marlins Park with flowers and tears to pay tribute to their own, No. 16, his name shining in orange lights.
He was us. He was our story.