Every game, abuela climbs into that sky in Cuba. It is about as close as she ever gets to feeling the freedom her grandson fled to find. Miami Marlins pitcher José Fernández has sent her so many American treasures while trying to bridge the heartbreaking gap now between them. Plasma TVs. Cellphones. A new mattress. He even managed to have air conditioning installed in grandma’s house from afar. But you know what Olga Fernández values most? That radio.
If only for nine innings at a time, it allows her to cross that ocean and feel like she is right next to the All-Star she raised. The island of Fernández’s youth rots a little more by the day, and it is stuck in the Dark Ages in many ways, including the televising of baseball. So, because reception isn’t great downstairs, up into that sky this 68-year-old lady in Santa Clara climbs with that radio on the nights her All-Star grandson pitches, up there closer to the stars, an old Cuban woman praying that there is no rain while listening to Marlins games alone on her roof.
“I get so emotional,” she said in Spanish from her home. “I cry and everything. He takes me with him. It is like I can see the United States through his eyes.”
José calls his grandmother “the love of my life ...She’s my everything,” he said. “There’s nothing more important than her.” So he enjoys getting the scouting reports from her in their near-daily phone calls.
“She tells me, ‘The Phillies are good, but you are better,’ ” José said. “She says, ‘Here’s the game plan: We’re going to go at them hard and away, and low. Stay down in the zone. Breaking balls in the dirt, but not too many because those are bad for the arm.’ I told her the other day that they have me throwing 95 to 100 pitches a game, and she screamed, ‘What?!’ I don’t think she knows I’m 6-3, 230 pounds now. She still sees me as 15 years old.”
That’s not true, actually. She last saw José at that age, before he defected, and didn’t even see a new photo of him again until January, when she stared in disbelief at a neighbor’s computer.
“My little boy, my love, he is a man now,” she said. “He’ll always be little to me, but I couldn’t even get my arms around him to hug him now, he’s so big. He looks so ...”
And the next word she uses tells you a little bit about that gap between our countries.
A fearful place
What was worse, José?
What scared you more?
The two months you spent in a dirty Cuban prison after being caught again trying to defect?
Or the first two months with freedom in America?
“Being here,” Fernández said.
How can that be?
“At least in jail I could defend myself,” he said. “But here I felt so helpless. Overwhelmed. I’ve never felt anything worse than my first few months here. Jail felt better than that, and I was in with a guy who killed seven people.”
The difficulty of this transition is hard to explain to people who don’t understand, though besieged Cuban phenom Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers might try if he had any grasp of English while trying to ward off the build-them-up-tear-them-down-rinse-repeat cycle. Cubans often get here and can’t find commonality anywhere but the diamond, where so many of them happen to be fluent. Fernández didn’t know the language, the customs, the technology, the people when he arrived here at 15, and he missed his grandmother terribly.
Everything confused him, right down to the smallest things. Like the bathroom faucet at the airport, for example. How were all those people getting water from it? What did they know that he didn’t? He stared at the faucet, banging on it, backing away from it, watching others use it successfully. He finally left frustrated, without washing his hands. What did he know about sensors? Censors, he could tell you about. But sensors?
“In Cuba, nobody washes their hands,” he said. “There’s not even soap.”
He got reprimanded for throwing a gum wrapper in the street; he was used to just throwing litter wherever he wanted back home. He didn’t know how to turn on a computer. He wrote down phone numbers in a book, not knowing he could program them into his new phone. And high school kids laughed at him for all this, laughed so much that he didn’t know when they were laughing at him and when they weren’t, all of the laughter sounding the same. So he threw a kid against a fence for calling him Cubanito, not needing to hear anything else.
Fernández’s father, Ramón Jiménez — a jokester — told him at the restaurant that he could go up at the buffet and take as much as he wanted. Get out of here, José said, I’m not a sucker. I’m not falling for your tricks, Dad, and getting in trouble. He didn’t believe that there was any such thing as all you can eat, not when he came from nothing to eat. No, no, he told the waitress. I did not ask for that, and I will not pay for that. He didn’t know anything about free refills.
He could only afford to call his grandmother for three or four minutes at a time. He would skip class, where he didn’t understand a word, to go and cry in the woods. He spent nine hours one day sitting in his car by the beach, distraught after learning that his grandmother had again been denied a visa (she has been denied four times).
‘A LOT OF CRYING’
“I did a lot of crying that I didn’t show people,” he said. “I asked myself a lot, ‘What am I doing here?’ I didn’t feel like I belonged.”
Said his grandmother of those phone calls: “Don’t remind me of that please. That made me crazy. I didn’t know what was happening with him, and I didn’t know how to help him. We’d talk for just a few minutes, and he was not well. I don’t want to talk about that time please.”
Possible connectors with other students that could have crossed the language barrier: Fernández had no idea what video games even were, never mind how to play them.
“You know how I played in the streets in Cuba? Throwing rocks,” he said. “I spent my days picking tomatoes and onions and selling them door to door. I would make a lot of money. Four dollars. That’s a lot of money over there. I was really, really poor. But compared to others? Not so poor. I’d walk the 30 minutes to and from the stadium on the street in my cleats because I had only one other pair of shoes, and I didn’t want to ruin my going-out shoes.”
He sat in a high school class and took the FCAT. Or tried. And failed. He didn’t know any of the words, going through a dictionary one by one. Imagine taking a test that way.
“I didn’t even know where to write my name,” he said. “I put my name in the wrong place.”
He asked a fellow student in Spanish for an eraser. The teacher reprimanded him for talking during a test. He knew so few English words, and only the bad ones, so he called her a bitch and got kicked out.
“She later fell in love with José,” assistant principal Frank Diaz says now. “Everyone does, you know?”
Baseball was the bridge. Fernández told the coaches he was pretty good in Cuba. Yeah, right, they sniffed; all the new kids say that. They put him in the least-impressive group to try out. He was insulted by that. But then he picked up a baseball ... and so much of the confusion evaporated on the spot.
His coach’s reaction?
“Wow,” Landy Faedo says now.
Everything changed then. “Before that, no one wanted to talk to me,” Fernández said. “Then they saw me playing and everyone wanted to talk to me ... and tried to speak Spanish. ...Girls would come up to me. I don’t like popular. I like low-key, humble. But popular is a lot better than lost.”
Next thing you know, at lunch, 20 and 30 kids were gathered around Fernández’s table, having learned how to play dominoes. Fernández helped Tampa Alonso High School win two state championships.
“He was throwing 94 in the championship game as a sophomore,” Faedo said. “That was up from 84-86.”
The explanation for the increased velocity?
“He had more food here than there,” the coach said. “And he put on weight because he wasn’t going everywhere by foot.”
Fernández’s is a uniquely Miami story, from rags to pitches, with an arm strong enough to pull back in even a scarred and betrayed fan base that keeps getting reasons to pull away. Humble and charismatic, with a child’s enthusiasm for joy, he is the only Marlins representative at the All-Star Game tonight, talking through a smile in the kind of accent that surrounds his home ballpark in Little Havana, and with a similar immigrant story.
“He sends me a lot of gifts, but I don’t live like a queen here,” abuela said from Cuba. “I’d live like a queen if I lived there with him. Every day, I pray to be there. It is harder than difficult.”
He is a first-round pick, and the owner of a $2 million bonus, and somehow already an All-Star even though he is not yet 21.
Only one thing missing from completing this American dream.
You can bet she will be listening Tuesday night in the darkness, up on her roof, searching for a connection 90 and a million miles away.