Junko Sasaki walked toward a makeshift memorial for Jose Fernandez in front of Marlins Park Sunday morning with a bouquet of flowers in one hand and every piece of memorabilia she could hold of the 24-year-old Cuban-born pitcher in the other.
Tears were streaming down Sasaki's face and soon more would follow as the 40-year-old Japanase-born baseball fan fell to her knees and began to sob inconsolably.
“I came here from Japan last year because I was a big fan of Ichiro and I wanted to see him reach 3,000 hits,” Sasaki, 40, said.
“But I fell in love with Jose — his story, how he came from nothing, how he left Cuba on a boat. He was such a fun player who loved this game so much. Just last night he said hello to me from the field, shook his head because I kept shouting his name. He became my favorite player. I just can’t believe he is gone.”
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There was no baseball game Sunday at Marlins Park, a game Fernandez was originally supposed to start. But there was mourning and sadness for the hundreds of fans who showed up to grieve and remember what the two-time All-Star meant to them.
Many fans said they woke up to learn of the news on social media or through alerts that Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Braves had been canceled.
“I didn't believe it. I've seen these hoaxes before,” said John Bradford, a season ticket holder from Tennessee who had arrived to the park early Sunday to be first in line to get the Ichiro bat fans were going to receive today to honor the slugger’s 3,000th career hit.
“Unfortunately this was not a hoax. It got confirmed shortly after I got here and it's just unbelievable — just unbelievable. “
“It's unreal. There are no words to describe it,” said 18-year-old Felipe Zwanzger, who had season tickets in the Jose’s Heroes section and was at every one of Fernandez’s home starts.
“Whenever my life wasn't going right I would come here and escape from everything, watch him pitch and everything would feel right. We could lose the game, seeing that guy on the mound, seeing his firepower, I mean, that guy was like family. It was like that family member that could cheer you up when you were down. He could put a smile on your face no matter what.”
Manny Forte, 64, has been coming to games since 1997 when the team won their first World Series, said he has a photo at home of Fernandez holding his granddaughter. He treasures it.
“He was a real big kid,” said Forte, who like Fernandez escaped Cuba. “Jose was the face of what we have all strived to do -- have our freedom, have a good career here in the U.S., to have all the freedoms this country offers us. He stands for that reminder of where we all came from.”