Jose Fernandez is very interested in the Tampa Bay Rays’ exhibition game against the Cuban national team Tuesday afternoon in Havana.
Fernandez, the Marlins’ 23-year old, Cuban-born ace, tried to escape his home country multiple times until he finally did successfully on his fourth try in 2008 — a journey that nearly cost his mother her life.
So while he sees it as an opportunity for the people of his native land to watch American professional baseball up close, Fernandez feels plenty still needs to change for it to have a true impact.
“Hopefully this is the beginning of change over there,” Fernandez said. “We all have our concerns about what is going on there. It gives you some hope when things like this happen and you see the President [of the United States] over there now.
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“But a lot still has to change.”
Fernandez, who was born in Santa Clara, Cuba, fled the island when he was 15 years old with his mother and sister.
After three failed attempts, he served prison time for being a dissident.
Fernandez and his family finally made it to Tampa, where he was reunited with his stepfather. But on the way across the turbulent waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Fernandez’s mother nearly drowned after she fell overboard, but he jumped in and saved her life.
Although much has been made of the baseball impact of the game, Fernandez doesn’t think it will bring enough attention to the plight of the Cuban people under the communist regime.
“I think the players [from the U.S.] that go to Cuba will see a lot of reality,” Fernandez said. “They will see a lot of things that we take for granted here that people over there don’t. Pretty much over there, people don’t have anything.
“But they’re probably not going to go inside the cities and see the real life and real struggles of the people over there.”
Fernandez enrolled at Alonso High in Tampa and began his journey to major-league stardom.
The Marlins drafted him out of high school in 2011 and he made his debut in 2013, later becoming the National League’s Rookie of the Year and finishing third in the Cy Young Award voting that season.
Fernandez also became a U.S. citizen last year in April.
“For all of us, it’s a dream to come to America and play baseball,” Fernandez said. “Some of us will do whatever it takes to achieve that. Hopefully, this will open a lot of doors and can change a lot of things.”
Fernandez said that from a baseball standpoint, the game will benefit the people of Cuba and many young players like him dreaming of playing in the major leagues — many of whom will get to see a MLB team up close for the first time.
But Fernandez showed mixed emotions when asked if he would like to see the Marlins play a game in Cuba someday or if he would ever consider playing for the Cuban national team if the political situation changed.
“My grandmother would love to see me pitch over there,” Fernandez said. “It would be a dream for her, but I would only do it under the right circumstances. There’s really not one thing I can point out that needs to change. I could go over all of them, but I’d be here all day and I have to pitch today.
“So many things would need to change before I would ever do that. I went through so many things and my family went through so much to get here, that a lot would have to change.”
The Marlins sent nine players to the minors Tuesday, including starter Justin Nicolino and relievers Kyle Barraclough and Brian Ellington. The three pitchers, along with catcher Tomas Telis, were optioned to Triple-A New Orleans.
The Marlins reassigned outfielders Isaac Galloway and Destin Hood, right-handed pitchers Paul Clemens and Andre Rienzo and catcher Francisco Arcia to minor-league camp.
Nicolino, who made 12 starts going 5-4 with a 4.01 ERA in 74 innings pitched last season, had been competing for a spot in the team’s rotation. He made two starts and three appearances this spring, going 0-1 with a 2.16 ERA in 8 1/3 innings with two strikeouts and no walks.
“For us with Nicolino it was a matter of getting him ready,” Mattingly said. “We know we’re going to need him during the course of the season. Nico is definitely a starting pitcher and a guy we think will pitch in the majors for a long time.”
Mattingly said Barraclough and Ellington are still being looked at as potential middle relief or set-up options later this season for a bullpen that already lost a key piece when Carter Capps underwent Tommy John surgery.
Fernandez spoke to reporters and then made his third start of the spring as he combined with Edwin Jackson, Craig Breslow and A.J. Ramos on a one-hitter in a 3-0 win over the Red Sox in Jupiter. Fernandez walked one batter and struck out four in five hitless innings, while Jackson pitched two of his own and struck out two, and Ramos picked up the save in the ninth. Fernandez threw 60 pitches (41 for strikes).
Marcell Ozuna left the game after three innings after he appeared to hurt his ankle while sliding into second base on a double. Ozuna said after the game it was a precautionary move, and he expects to play Wednesday.
Wednesday: Marlins RHP Tom Koehler vs. Cardinals RHP Carlos Martinez, 1:05 p.m., Jupiter.