The boy walked toward the entrance to Marlins Park with a worn-out mitt on his left hand, a Marlins cap on his head and a jersey — Fernandez, 16 — on his back. He looked to be about 10, was there with his father and another man, and appeared eager to get inside. But as the group approached the home plate entrance on this Thursday afternoon prepared to watch the Marlins play the Mets, they stopped. They had to.
They stared for a few seconds and said nothing at first. They stared at the imposing orange wall. At the hundreds — thousands? — of messages written in permanent marker. At the word “Fernandez” and the number “16,” just like on the boy’s back. And at the black ribbon marked with a date range: 1992-2016.
One look at that wall is all it takes to bring everything back. The smiles of “the kid” on the mound and the fans in the stands. The emotions of the then-15-year-old jumping into the sea to save his drowning mother during their journey to freedom. The talent of his arm. The tragedy of his death.
“I miss him all the time,” former Marlins pitching coach Chuck Hernandez said. “We miss him. My family misses him. My whole family loved the kid. My wife loved the kid. … It’s surreal that he’s not here. Every time I go to Miami, I’m just like, ‘I wanna see him. I wanna hug him. I wanna be with him.’ Obviously, that can’t be.”
Yes, with the first All-Star Game since Jose Fernandez’s death about to take place in his home park, people haven’t forgotten. Major League Baseball plans to honor him with a ceremony during the game, though it’s not known what will take place. Regardless, it’s proof Jose’s presence is still felt. That the emotions are still intense. That the void he left is still vast.
“Ever since we finished the All-Star game last year, he was anxious for this year’s game to get here,” Jose’s mother, Maritza Gomez, said. “He knew that he had a guaranteed place in this All-Star game. Even more that it was at home, for the first time being celebrated here. He was so excited. He was always talking about when it would arrive this year and his All-Star Game.”
The reminders of who he was, what happened to him and what could have been are everywhere. The Marlins have worn a 16 patch on their jerseys all season. For the players, there’s his locker, which remains intact behind a glass panel inside Marlins Park. And then there’s his daughter, Penelope, a breathing reminder for his family.
All those elements bring a barrage of questions, and when those questions get strong enough, it feels like the breeze is blowing and the rain is gushing like when the whirlwind wrecked Miami on the morning of Sept. 25, 2016.
Then the storm passes.
But for those few seconds, the questions and the memories are inescapable. So at the All-Star Game, when fans are sure to adorn his memorial with flowers and notes and thoughts of what could’ve been, they’ll also be forced to think back on Jose. They’ll be forced to confront his memory, his legacy and the hole he left in Miami’s first-ever Midsummer Classic.
Just like the dad visiting with his friend and son.
“I cried,” he told his friend as he walked away from the wall. “I still cry. That’s Jose, man.”
It still happens. They can’t avoid it. Whether it’s Miguel Rojas or Marcell Ozuna or Martin Prado, all the players whose lockers stand near Jose’s sometimes catch themselves watching. Wondering. Wishing he’d step through the nearby door.
On the same Thursday the man and his son went to the game, Rojas reminisced about playing miniature basketball with Jose in front of that locker. Or playing cards. Or the laughs they shared when Jose would walk in and bear hug them all.
“I miss that,” Rojas said. “I miss that stuff.”
The locker itself sits in the far corner of the room, right by the entrance to the showers. It’s full of pants, jerseys, a pair of socks with 16 scrawled across the toes in permanent marker, cleats, flip flops and an orange glove with “Jose Fernandez” embroidered on the thumb. There’s really only one hint at the tragedy it represents.
Look hard at the glass, and you’ll see a sticker of the number 16. Above and below that sticker are two black adhesive strips. One says 16 again. The other says “LOVE.” That’s the sticker that carries a question with it.
It still doesn’t seem real, they’ll tell you, that on the night of Sept. 24, Jose went to the Cocoplum Yacht Club after the Marlins defeated the Braves and headed into Biscayne Bay on his 32-foot SeaVee powerboat, the Kaught Looking, with his friend Eduardo Rivero. That after docking at a Brickell bar to pick up an acquaintance, Emilio Macias, the trio headed back out into the bay around 2:40 a.m. And that a loud bang was heard near the north jetty of Government Cut, with the Coast Guard soon discovering their bodies and devastating their families.
“I’d like to do so many things and I can’t do anything,” Gomez said. “Just cry and cry and cry. In my mind he is on a trip, but in reality I know he’s not here. And it’s super difficult for me. I pass by the stadium and I don’t even want to look at it.”
Every player can tell you where they were when they heard the news. Even those who aren’t players and who aren’t with the team anymore remember.
I’d like to do so many things and I can’t do anything. Just cry and cry and cry.
Maritza Gomez, José Fernández’s mother
Former Marlins manager Dan Jennings was in Los Angeles scouting the Dodgers for his new team, the Washington Nationals, when he was awakened in his hotel room by unyielding buzzing. When he finally dragged himself out of bed around 5 a.m., he picked up his phone with Hernandez on the other end.
“DJ, tell me this isn’t true,” Hernandez pleaded. “Tell me this isn’t real.”
Now, when Jennings comes to Marlins Park with the Nationals, he’s reminded of that morning over and over again. But he’s also reminded of everything Jose was before the accident.
As the assistant general manager when Jose was drafted back in 2011, Jennings had followed him since high school. He said even back then, Jose had a “gift” for a right arm that could hit 94 mph, whip a looping breaking ball and have fun doing it.
He also remembers the day Jose came back from Tommy John surgery in 2015 and told Jennings, then the Marlins manager, that he was going to hit a home run for his abuela as they stood on the dugout steps.
He did it on the third pitch he saw.
“Nothing this guy would do or could do,” Jennings thought, “would surprise me.”
His teammates felt the same way, especially about pitching. After all, Jose compiled a 38-17 record, a 2.58-career ERA, two All-Star Game appearances and was a Cy Young runner-up in his four MLB seasons. So when asked what his legacy will be 20 years from now, closer A.J. Ramos was certain.
“People are gonna remember him on the mound,” he said. “His game spoke more than anything else. When he was out there, it was a show.”
Of course, that’s not all they remember. How could it be? For players, executives, coaches, fans and citizens of South Florida alike, Jose was more than a talented arm. He was a person. A man who could electrify a room. A man who seemed to already know everyone he met. A man whose smile is remembered as much as his fastball.
Every person you ask about Jose will bring up that smile.
“That energy,” Hernandez recalled of his first memories of Jose. “The first thing is I just — I feel energy. Just his smile and his way about him.”
That smile — and the motivation behind it — is part of the reason players wear “16” patches on their jerseys and why Marlins staffers wear “16” pins. Sure, he was a great player, but they know there was more to No. 16 than that.
Angela Smith, the Marlins’ senior director of community relations, remembers how as soon as Jose landed in Miami after debuting in New York as a 20-year-old rookie, he came to her and asked how he could get involved with helping the community. She said she’d never seen that before.
She remembers how he started a program called Los Lanzadores that brought kids from Little Havana to Marlins games to hang out with him on the field. He also gave them free T-Shirts, tickets and food.
She remembers how, upon overhearing that the Marlins were sponsoring a trip to the Miami Children’s Museum through the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana, he interjected and asked to join. He spent hours at the museum the next day.
And she remembers how he once met with 20-year-old Cristina Llanes, a gravely ill patient at Holtz Children’s Hospital, on the field before batting practice. He told the staff to stop asking him about meetings like that one; he was always going to say yes.
“She squealed,” Smith said. “And he was equally excited to meet her too.”
Jose died later that night.
I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. I want to, but I can’t. I want to go to the stadium, but I can’t.
Maritza Gomez, José Fernández mother
After his death, Marlins president David Samson summoned all Marlins staffers to the Diamond Club in Marlins Park to share their thoughts, grieve and remember. Smith said that in hindsight it’s no surprise, but at the time, it was shocking to see so many employees across every department — some of which had no reason to interact directly with Jose — share some sort of one-off story about him. About a joke he told. Or how he’d hang out with employees in the mailroom. Or how he’d walk into random offices just to say hi.
“It’s not because he was my son,” Gomez said, “but my son moved mountains.”
Of all the reminders of Jose, his infant daughter Penelope represents the heartbreak.
Today, Penelope, who was born to Jose’s girlfriend Maria Arias about five months after his death, is doing “very well.” Gomez sees her granddaughter every day, and when she can’t, she FaceTimes with her.
“She has his same smile,” Gomez said. “I feel like I’m holding him in my arms again.”
But no matter how much Penelope helps fill the chasm her son left behind, she can’t fill it all. Nothing can.
“She gives me some happiness and I feel, when I’m with her, a big difference,” Gomez said. “But that hole, no one can fill.”
Jose’s blood-alcohol content level was .147 — about twice the legal limit — according to a report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, when the boat crashed. He also tested positive for cocaine after the crash. The report also ruled that Jose was driving the boat, though his attorney and family friend Ralph Fernandez called that conclusion into question and said the entire investigation was “poorly done.”
As a result of the report, Jose’s estate is being sued by the families of the two men — Rivero and Macias — who were killed in the crash. Those lawsuits are still in progress.
Macias, 27, was a financial adviser at Wells Fargo, and the effects of his death still weigh heavily on his family and friends, some of which called him “Ito.” One of those friends, Alexander Salas, still has “RIP Ito” as the first thing in his Instagram biography.
When he died, his cousin Ailin Macias called him “an amazing son, brother, grandson, boyfriend, cousin, friend.”
Rivero, 25, was a sales rep with Carnival Cruise Lines who
had greater ambitions. Family friend Rosa Santana remembers him as someone who was studious and sweet.
“He’s gone,” she sobbed, “and he wasn’t supposed to be gone. He had a lot to do.”
That was indicated in his final Instagram post. “Here is to many many moons to come,” he captioned a photo of him with his girlfriend. “I love you.”
He died eight days later.
Though what happened on the Kaught Looking that night might remain a mystery, Gomez will have to tell Penelope about it some day. About the irony that for all the work her father did with kids — those who know him say it helped that he was a 6-foot-3, 240-pound kid himself — he never got to meet his own. About how he went too soon. And about the cocaine, which surprised everyone who knew Jose.
“That was foreign to me,” Hernandez said of the cocaine showing up in the toxicology report, “because I know that wasn’t how he was brought up and that wasn’t how he was made up.”
While that’s a conversation Gomez will likely save for a much later day, there are other things about Jose she already tells Penelope. And she looks forward to the day when the soon-to-be 5-month-old will understand them.
“I have many things to tell her about her dad,” Gomez said. “Despite the short time, he had the opportunity to realize almost all of his dreams. Although the greatest dream of his life was to, this year, be in the All-Star Game.
“But unfortunately, it couldn’t be that way.”
The wall where the boy, his dad and many others stop to remember is something they wish they could forget. They wish it didn’t exist. It’s a place where fans can pause to get lost in their memories, and based on the messages written on the orange background, many of them do.
“Thank you for all the smiles!” wrote Natasha S. “You will be truly missed. Forever an ace in our hearts.”
“RIP to my all time fav player!” Read another message that was left unsigned. “Love you always.”
“Rest easy niño,” read a third from Paz Vergara. “Heaven gained an amazing angel.”
“Heaven needed its ace,” read one more signed by Ed K. “Gone, but never forgotten.”
But those messages could’ve been written months ago, and while the wall is still signed at almost every game, that tradition is fading. Instead, fans smile and pose for pictures with the closest thing Jose, who was cremated and buried at sea, has to a tombstone.
“I don’t know why you’re smiling about that,” one man told his girlfriend as she posed for a selfie with the memorial.
Last season, Jose was the second pitcher to appear in the All-Star Game for the National League. Physical therapist and close friend Ron Yacoub, after making an agreement with Jose before the season, went along for the trip to San Diego. Earlier this week, it wasn’t the wall that brought that memory back, but a trip to Hillstone — a restaurant Jose would frequent — in Coral Gables.
“As we pulled up to the restaurant,” Yacoub said, “I realized that we’re a week away from this All-Star Game, and that this time last year, he called me to tell me, ‘Hey brother, I made it to the All-Star Game. And you’re going.’”
Later on in the season, Yacoub had what turned out to be his final conversation with Jose. After he’d just shut down the Nationals for eight scoreless innings, the two talked about goals. About Jose’s legacy. About his life.
“You’re realizing your dreams, man,” Yacoub told him. “Next year, you’re gonna be at least one of the top three-to-five pitchers in the game, going for a Cy Young, going for another All-Star, going for the playoffs.”
Jose died two days later.
With the All-Star Game dawning in Miami on Tuesday, the little boys and girls who attend with their dads and moms, the players, the executives and everyone else will have to face similar memories of Hurricane Jose. They’ll also be forced to confront that the man who was made to start this game — the man who escaped Cuba and saved his mother’s life while doing so, who like so many in Miami found home and a new life here — won’t be on that mound.
Gomez has already had to address what’s coming, and it makes her ill. She won’t be watching, and she’ll try — and fail — to not think about it.
“That day, if the earth opens up and swallows me, it would be for the best,” she said. “Not just that day, but I’ve spent two weeks where I’ve been at my lowest. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. I want to, but I can’t. I want to go to the stadium, but I can’t.
“I barely sleep. I can’t sleep. I can't explain everything I feel, everything this means to me. I wish Tuesday would get here and this would all end.”
For others who can bear watching the game, meanwhile, the reminders of what’s missing will be inescapable.
“There’s always some kind of reminder,” Yacoub said. “And it’s a little pit in your stomach. The pit was enormous, and now it’s that one little pit where your heart kinda stops for a second thinking about what could’ve been or where he should be.”
Miami Herald writer Chabeli Herrera contributed to this report.