Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez ditched his team colors Friday for the red, white and blue of his adopted nation.
Donning a dark suit and slicked-back hair, the 22-year-old waved a mini American flag to Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to be an American” song, as he joined 140 other South Florida residents in becoming U.S. citizens.
During the ceremony, Cuban-born Fernandez, along with the other applicants, took an oath of allegiance at the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services Kendall field office.
A nervous Fernandez addressed the room of new citizens who originated from Vietnam, Venezuela and 20 countries in between, during a keynote speech.
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“I respect everyone who makes this country what it is today and I don’t think we should take that for granted,” he said. “It is an honor to be a U.S. citizen and that’s all I’ve got to say.”
For the youngest Marlins Opening Day starter, becoming a U.S. citizen was one of his dreams from a young age.
“I feel respect for those people who defend our country, for the people that go out there and risk their lives everyday for us,” he said. “You want to be free, and that’s what it’s all about today.”
Fernandez defected to the United States in 2008 on his fourth attempt from his hometown of Santa Clara, Cuba. Settling in Tampa, he attended Alonso High, where the Marlins drafted him with their first-round pick in 2011. After spending two seasons in the minor league, he made his MLB debut in 2013, the same year that he won the NL Rookie of the Year title.
Ariel Rodriguez, a 20-year-old Marlins fan who aspires to become an air-traffic controller or a pilot, also defected from Cuba five years ago.
“I am proud to be a U.S. citizen. This is a great country,” he said.
The Marlins honored the 139 new citizens with two tickets to attend any two games during this season.
For fans, Fernandez is expected to be back on the mound this summer. He hasn’t pitched a game since last May due to an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery.
“I thank this amazing country for giving me the opportunity to go to school here, learn the language and pitch in the major leagues,” Fernandez said. “It's an honor to be a part of this country, and I respect it so much.”