José Fernandez embodied all that was good about the Cuban American community. He was so good that I often wondered if he was real or a figment of our collective imaginations.
After meeting him and sizing him up, I came away impressed with his ability to handle pressure. Fernandez took on challenges on and off the mound and yet maintained a resilient joie de vivre that characterized him. Sunday, Miami awakened to the news of Fernandez’s tragic death, and while the horrible headlines broke the heart of our city, nation and the sports world, Cuban Americans profoundly grieve today for the disappearence of what legendary Hall of Fame announcer Felo Ramirez described to me a few weeks ago as un regalo de Dios — a gift from God.
The struggles of Cuban exiles remain a mystery to most non-Cubans. A documentary film here and there, a book, a famous singer — throw in several talented athletes for good measure — and the average American’s exposure to the plight of Cubans is little to none, especially for Americans living outside of Miami. Cubans of all eras have prided themselves on quickly establishing themselves in the United States and assimilating to the American way of life — nostalgia, history and melancholia take a back seat to the stark realities of getting a menial job and starting from scratch in a foreign land.
I’m thankful that many of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation drew a fine line between teaching us our heritage and bogging us down or tainting our outlook with their hardships. Cubans suffer in silence. It is in and from that context that Fernandez springs onto the scene as a ray of positive light.
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He understood the difficulties of establishing a new life and identity. He appreciated the separation from family that many Cubans endure, he experienced it firsthand with his abuela, whom he called “the love of his life.” He comprehended the severity of Cuba’s dictatorial regime, for as a teenager, he served a two-month jail sentence for simply trying to leave the oppressed island. At the staggeringly young age of 24, Fernandez empathized with his compatriots’ anguish, put our struggles on his shoulders and then somehow with his cutting slider, rising fastball and incredible desire managed to put every Cuban’s quiet penance on hold every time he shined in his Marlins’ uniform.
The connection between Cubans and the American pastime has been highlighted many times. At the core of the special bond and history that exists between Cubans and baseball is a unique passion with which Cubans play the sport. It’s as if their competitive souls were at stake in every play of every game.
Saturday, I was fortunate enough to attend an event where former Cuban big leaguers were being honored. Inevitably, every time I mentioned Jose Fernandez’s name to one of the old-timers, they would beam a smile from ear to ear before I was able to fully articulate my thought.
“Cubans don’t just learn the sport, they feel it,” said long-time major leaguer, now announcer, Cookie Rojas that day. “José Fernandez is an example of a classic Cuban baseball player. He could have played in any era and been great. Jose has amazing baseball intuition. All the great ball players from the island have that.” But Fernandez, Rojas said, had something else: “He has a ton of heart.”
Baseball fans of all nationalities identified Jose Fernandez’s uniqueness. A blend of poise and desire reminiscent of many of the Cuban greats that Cookie Rojas alluded to this past weekend. Fernandez seemed to represent them all, but what made him special was that he also personified Cubans of all walks of life — he acknowledged their plight and figuratively wore it on his throwing arm. The baseball world has lost a promising young star. Cubans have lost a beacon of light.