José Fernández was just a teenager when he etched the number “99” on a mirror inside his home in Tampa. It wasn’t a favorite number. It wasn’t a lucky number. It was the speed he wanted for his fastball.
“When he was starting high school, he wrote that number on the mirror, so as to see it when he got up every morning, and to remind him that every time he combed his hair or looked at himself, that it was the number of miles per hour he wanted to reach on his pitches,” said Ramón Jiménez, José’s father.
“José has always been like that. When he fights for something, he never lets down his guard.”
It is that kind of determination and drive that put Fernández — a 20-year-old who five years ago fled communist Cuba in a speedboat and is now a rookie pitching sensation with the Miami Marlins — in this year’s coveted All-Star Game. Named to the National League squad late Saturday, he’s the youngest Marlin ever to be named to the All-Star team.
“It’s just incredible,” Fernández said on Saturday from St. Louis, where the Marlins are playing the Cardinals. “When they told me, I just started sweating and my hands started getting cold. They still are right now. I was just sitting around and thinking this is just incredible. I’m going to do the best I can.”
It was just a little more than three months ago that he made his pitching debut against the New York Mets. In a few short months, he has become one of the main attractions in an otherwise dismal Marlins season.
The Marlins, under public scrutiny after finishing last in 2012 and releasing valuable and experienced players, are thrilled at having another potential Dontrelle Willis on the mound.
“I look at José and I can’t avoid comparing him to the D-Train. I see it in his look, his confidence, in the joy with which he looks at life,” said Marlins manager Mike Redmond, who caught for Willis in that magical season in 2003 when the team won the World Series and Willis was named National League Rookie of the Year. “Every time he pitches, something almost magical happens, something good is expected and his teammates feel that way. José gives us a big chance of winning.”
On a team with barely 32 wins, the kid from Santa Clara, Cuba, has a 5-4 record and a 2.72 ERA — the best of any rookie and 10th-best in the National League — yet nothing describes his dominance better than these statistics: 94 strikeouts in 92.2 innings.
Beyond the numbers, Fernández goes to the mound with an aggressive attitude. At 6-foot-two-inches, and weighing 240 pounds, he wants to intimidate the batter, from the moment he raises his glove to cover his face to when he delivers the pitch — as if he were going back to the times of a Roger Clemens or a Bob Gibson.
“At home we used to tell him that he was a big child, but the truth is that José has always behaved as an older person and his maturity startled us,” said Jiménez, who took on the role of a father when José was only 3 months old and has remained at his side ever since. “Since the first time I had him in my arms, I felt something special for the kid. Now I see him pitching, wearing the Marlins uniform and I’m so proud, because the road to get here has not been easy for him or me.”
The road to America began in Cuba, where Fernández started playing baseball at age 5. By age 14, according to the Tampa Bay Times, he had pitched in three national championship games. He was enrolled in the Villa Clara Province’s School for Sports Initiation (EIDE) and appeared destined to join the Cuban National Team, reported the Times.
Fernández — who does not have a close relationship with his biological father — had made several attempts to leave Cuba. Following one attempt, he spent a year in prison for “illegally attempting to leave the country,” he said.
“I am always asked these days if pitching for the Major Leagues makes me nervous or gets me restless, but none of that happens,” said Fernández, who at 20 years and 250 days old is this season’s second youngest player, second only to Bryce Harper (20 years, 173 days). “I’ve gone through a lot of experiences that have not always been positive, though they have made me stronger. Pitching at this level does not scare me. On the contrary, it’s something I respect and value and also enjoy.”
Fernández, who turns 21 on July 31, said he will never forget the day he boarded a boat for his fourth attempt in 2008 to flee Cuba. He and his family were determined to leave at all cost to reunite with Jiménez, who had left in 2005 after making 14 attempts.
During that journey something happened that left a mark on Fernández for the rest of his life.
After escaping flying bullets from Cuban coast guard boats, and later in the solitude of the ocean on their way to Mexico, somebody said that a person had fallen in the water. Fernández did not hesitate and jumped in. When he finally had the fallen person in his arms he was shocked to realize that he had just saved his own mother, Maritza.
“I have always been a good swimmer, since I was a kid, which is why I am always alert,” Fernández said. “I dove to help a person not thinking who that person was. Imagine when I realized it was my own mother. If that does not leave a mark on you for the rest of your life, I don’t know what will.”
Fernández, Maritza and his sister, Yadenis, spent several days at sea before arriving ashore near Cancún, Mexico. They rode a bus to the U.S.-Mexico border in Hidalgo, Texas, traveling through Vera Cruz and Reynosa, Mexico. They finally set foot in the United States on April 5, 2008, later settling in Tampa with Jiménez.
In Tampa, stories began to circulate about a pitching phenom from Cuba who dominated batters his same age. At age 18, he finished high school with a 30-3 record, recording 314 strikeouts and giving up only 59 walks. In his last three years, he led Tampa’s Alonso Ravens to two Florida state titles in 6A Class. He closed his high school career with a 13-1 season and two no-hit games.
A big part of the kid’s success is attributed to Orlando Chinea, an almost legendary pitching coach from Cuba who manages a baseball academy in Tampa that has trained dozens of pitchers.
“I’m not surprised by José’s success and I don’t exaggerate when I say that he could become the best Cuban-born pitcher ever,” said Chinea, who had coached the best pitchers on the island and later worked for years in baseball in Japan.
“It’s not only the obvious physical maturity but his mental strength. He is ready to face any situation and move forward. We are only looking here at the surface of his talent.”
Drafted by the Marlins in the first round of the 2011 amateur draft, Fernández did not disappoint, winning Rookie of the Year in his first season with farm teams.
Even so, many believed that the Marlins were making a mistake by promoting a kid who had never pitched beyond Class A to the majors, and had less than 200 innings in the minor leagues.
Now all those doubts have disappeared with his convincing performances. And his pitching prowess has earned him a trip to New York’s Citi Field, home to this year’s All-Star game July 16.
He certainly won’t be a stranger at Citi Field. It’s the same stadium where he made his Major League debut on April 7.
“I got lucky to be picked and be with those incredible players and learn from them the most I can,” said Fernández on Saturday from St. Louis, where on Sunday he’s the Marlins’ starting pitcher.
“I think it’s going to be a great experience and I’m going to enjoy it.”
Miami Herald sports reporter Andre C. Fernandez contributed to this report.