Miami Marlins pitcher José Fernández, who fled Cuba on a speedboat eight years ago to become one of baseball’s dominant players and a hometown hero to fans well beyond the stadium walls, died early Sunday in a violent boat crash off South Beach. He was 24.
Two friends were also killed in the accident, which remains under investigation and led Major League Baseball to promptly cancel Sunday’s home game against the Atlanta Braves.
Fernández, a right-hander with a wildly precise fastball and brutal curve ball, was originally slated to start in Sunday’s game but was rescheduled for Monday’s Mets game, a rare weekend day off that may have led the young pitcher to stay on the water longer.
News of the death was relayed to the Marlins when they were called about the crash Sunday morning and asked to confirm Fernández’s address. Stunned teammates appeared in black jerseys at an afternoon press conference, still clearly numbed by their teammate’s sudden death.
“When I think about José, I see such a little boy. The way he played, there was just joy with him,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said, unable to continue speaking.
Late Sunday, authorities still had not confirmed the identities of the other passengers aboard the 32-foot SeaVee, named the Kaught Looking, but they were identified by WSVN, who talked to their families at the medical examiner’s office, as Eduardo Rivero and Emilio Macias. The Medical Examiner posted death notices for both men on its website with no ages or other identifying information except that both died at 3:15 a.m. Sunday.
Macias’ Facebook page said he worked in wealth management for Wells Fargo Advisors. Rivero’s Facebook page said he worked for Carnival Corp. Sunday evening, members of the Braddock Senior High alumni Facebook group identified the victims as former students.
The Miami-Dade Police Department said one of the men is the son of a department detective but provided no other information.
The crash occurred about 3:20 a.m., so violent that the noise alerted a Miami Beach police officer on patrol who used his cellphone to call a Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue patrol boat, said Fire Rescue Capt. Leonel Reyes. About the same time, a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat returning to the Miami station also reported seeing the boat overturned on jetty rocks at Government Cut. Its navigation lights were still on, with debris scattered in the water.
Within minutes, Miami-Dade divers were on the scene and found two bodies under the boat, submerged in water washing over the jetty, Reyes said. Divers located a third body on the ocean floor nearby by about 4:15 or 4:30 a.m., he said.
Unsure if there were more victims, divers continued searching through the night and early morning. A Miami-Dade helicopter also searched from above, along with the Coast Guard boat, officials said. The search was called off about 9 a.m. after the victims’ families said no other passengers were aboard the boat. Fire Rescue then transported the bodies to a staging area at the Coast Guard station in Miami Beach, Reyes said.
Investigators said they were not sure where Fernández and his friends, dressed in T-shirts and shorts, were headed, or where they’d come from. But they say the boat, which belongs to a close friend of several Miami Marlins players and appeared in pictures on Fernández’s Instagram account, was traveling south at full speed when it struck the jetty and flipped.
Authorities late Sunday had not confirmed the boat’s owner.
None of the three was wearing a life vest. Investigators do not believe alcohol or drugs played a role in the crash, but toxicology tests will be performed as part of the autopsies. Lorenzo Veloz , spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told USA Today that Fernández likely died on impact.
“It’s a tragic loss for the city of Miami, for the community, for baseball, and for anyone who ever met Jose,” said Veloz, who said he had run into Fernández on the water several times during routine safety checks.
“I’m sorry. I’m getting goosebumps right now,” he said. “It’s really hitting home.”
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will head the the investigation of the crash.
Fernández, who posted a picture of his pregnant girlfriend just five days ago, was considered one of the Marlins’ biggest stars and one of the best pitchers in baseball. He was the team’s first-round draft pick in 2011 and the National League rookie of the year in 2013. He was finishing up his finest season in the majors, and expected to make his final start of the season Monday after his appearance Sunday was pushed back.
His death hit teammates hard and triggered an outpouring of grief. On their way into the stadium Sunday, Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton and A.J. Ramos walked with their heads lowered and said nothing. Second baseman Dee Gordon openly wept. Mourning fans came to leave flowers. In New York, Cuban player Yoenis Céspedes taped up a Fernández jersey in the team’s dugout.
During the press conference, Marlins President David Samson said after the team received the morning call, they struggled to come to grips with the news. Fernández’s number 16 was stenciled at the mound in Marlins Park, and his number displayed prominently around the stadium.
“When you talk about a tragedy like this, there are no words. There is no playbook,” Samson said. “We will play tomorrow.”
Politicians around Miami and the state also offered condolences to Fernández’s family and vowed to celebrate his life.
“His death is a huge loss for our community,” Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said in a statement.
Athletes shared their memories as well.
“Hermano, wherever you are, you know how much I loved you,” tweeted Yasiel Puig, who like Fernández was a Cuban athlete and one of baseball’s most exciting, rising stars in recent years. “Sin palabras. My heart is with the families.”
Stanton tweeted: “I gave him the nickname Niño because he was just a young boy Amongst men , yet those men could barely compete with him . He had his own level, one that was changing the game. EXTRAORDINARY as a person before the player. Yet still just a kid, who’s joy lit up the stadium more than lights could. ”
Growing up in communist Cuba, Fernández was jailed after failing on one of several attempts to flee the nation. In a harrowing escape hard to believe even in bigger-than-life Miami, he rescued his mother in dark waters in the Gulf of Mexico after hearing someone go overboard, not realizing until he found her that it was his mother. They crossed the border from Mexico, stepping foot in Texas, on April 5, 2008. He was 15.
“I’ve been in jail. I’ve been shot at. I’ve been in the water,” Fernández told the Miami Herald in 2013. “I’m not scared to face [New York Mets slugger] David Wright. What can he do?”
An avid boater, Fernández filled his Instagram account with pictures from the water, including shots of him holding catches including dolphin and snapper, the Miami skyline from the water and relaxing on the beach. Many reference J’s Crew, a saltwater fishing team. One includes a picture of the Kaught Looking, with the “K” facing backward — the baseball symbol for a strike called by an ump — and lined in Marlins colors.
Veloz, the fish and game officer, said the boat belonged to a close friend of several Marlins players, and was well-known to authorities. Veloz said he had even stopped the boat several times with Marlins players aboard, including Fernández, to conduct safety inspections.
Still, even though it sounds like the captain of the boat had experience and navigational equipment, nighttime brings the most perils for boat operators. Hazards can be impossible to spot without the aid of a GPS device or careful attention to navigation lights designed to identify safe channels and flag obstructions.
When divers arrived early Sunday, the night was still dark and water very choppy, Reyes said. What caused the accident was unclear, he said.
“Even though we’re not investigators, we ask ourselves the same question. These are young kids and why and how, we couldn’t tell anything,” he said. “They weren’t dressed for partying. Just in T-shirts and shorts. They could have been just going out for a nice night and ended up in tragedy.”
While darkness presents its own challenges, lights ashore cause problems, too, and interfere with night vision, Reyes said.
The brightness of South Beach at night can also obscure lights on markers and buoys that indicate safe passage, said one local rescue captain.
“When you’re facing the city, those lights are very hard to discern from the street lights and car lights,” said Rand Pratt, owner of the Sea Tow operation based in Key Biscayne. “It’s pretty significant, especially if you’re coming in from the ocean to the city.”
Tides can also obscure the jetty, which at high tide can sit just inches above the water line.
“They just stick out a foot” at high tide, Reyes said. “They’re very dangerous at night. The visibility is not very good.”
Boaters who spoke to the Miami Herald Sunday also said the north jetty juts out further to the east than the south jetty, which sometimes catches boaters off-guard. The rocks furthest to the east are submerged, as well, and marked on the edge by a buoy that knowledgeable captains know will tell them if they’re too far inland.
While none of the victims was wearing a life jacket — a practice frowned upon by safety advocates — it’s also typical. “That’s every boater in Miami,” Reyes said.
Photos of the vessel show damage to the hull near the front of the boat, in a spot that would have been underwater during operation. Veloz said the boat is believed to have struck the jetty. But Omar Blanco, a lieutenant in the county fire department and head of its union, said it’s not just the jetties that can cause boaters problems, but the submerged rocks around them.
“We’ve seen that happen all the time,” Blanco said of boating mishaps near Government Cut. “There are rocks underwater you don’t see. People run aground there.”
No information on services had been released late Sunday, but the families of Macias and Rivero had started GoFundMe pages to raise funds for funeral expenses.
“It brings us great grief to announce the passing of our new beautiful angel Eduardo Rivero,” his page said. “A man full of life, full of love, and full of happiness, was taken too soon with so much left to live for. Due to this tragedy we reach out to you for help as his family can not afford funeral arrangements.”
Macias’ page called him “an amazing son, brother, grandson, boyfriend, cousin, friend. Due to this unexpected tragedy we reach out for help to assist our family with funeral expenses. We will forever be grateful.”
By 2 p.m. Sunday, the jetty was cleared of the wreckage and a sunny day had brought out the normal crowds of beachgoers and strollers.
Juan Viviescas, 16, stood alone at the end of the South Pointe pier, staring at the jetty. He wore an orange Marlins athletic shirt, and teared up as he spoke of his favorite player.
“I’m a pitcher also,” said Viviescas, a junior at Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens. “He had so much support because of how he played the game. With so much heart and intensity. Like it was his last game.”
Viviescas came to South Beach with his mother and father on a Sunday that was supposed to unfold very differently. Viviescas hadn’t been to a Marlins game since the summer started. “I was actually going to go today. With my parents,” he said.
Miami Herald staff writer Carli Teproff contributed to this report.