Greg Cote: A family affair for Miami Marlins’ Jose Fernandez as grandmother, mother watch in the stands

04/01/2014 12:01 AM

09/08/2014 7:13 PM

We expect sports’ greatest moments to be big and loud, the spectacular plays that splash across live television and lift fans onto their feet. But sometimes the very best moments are small and quiet. They feel private, like snapshots from a family album.

This happened a little more than two hours before the Marlins’ season-opening baseball game here Monday night, as the home team took batting practice and the downtown ballpark was just beginning to slowly fill.

Jose Fernandez emerged from the clubhouse carrying two bright orange jerseys both bearing his number 16. On the back of one was stitched the word, ABUELA. The back of the other read, MAMA.

The Marlins’ young, star pitcher crept up behind his grandmother and mother, who stood near the wall behind home plate, to present his small gifts from the heart.

Fernandez traveled 90 miles and a lifetime to get to where he is today, and will tell you he wouldn’t have made it without the love and maternal strength given him.

Monday, his beloved grandmother, his abuela, watched him pitch in the big leagues for the first time.

Special jerseys. Special delivery. Special women. Special night.

The Marlins clobbered the Colorado Rockies 10-1 and in storybook fashion favorite son Jose was the star of the night with nine strikeouts and zero walks in six efficient, nearly unblemished innings. (Amazing what a lot of talent plus a little adrenaline can do). Marcell Ozuna’s solo home run and Casey McGehee’s three-run double were the biggest strokes in a 14-hit onslaught — offense that one season ago was all but unheard of.

This was Opening Night, but it was Jose’s night. Rather, his Abuela’s.

“I’m very emotional tonight, but that’s understandable, no?” said the grandmother, Olga, in Spanish.

She wiped at a tear that slid down her right cheek.

“I just want him to win and wish him lots of luck,” she said. “I just hope he’s happy. I have so many memories of watching him pitch as a kid.”

So does Jose.

“She’d yell at the umpires,” he said, smiling. “That was a strike!”

She didn’t have to yell much Monday.

Twenty-four of her grandson’s first 27 pitches were strikes. He had at least one strikeout in every inning he pitched.

The franchise’s 22nd season and third at Marlins Park opened like a fan’s dream. Everything was right. The stadium roof opened to a balmy night. Red, white and blue bunting decorated the park. Dolphins legend Dan Marino threw out the ceremonial first pitch (after which Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki asked Marino to pose for a photograph).

Opening Day “is how I remember feeling as a kid on Christmas eve,” described McGehee, the new Marlins third baseman.

“The plate’s clean,” said second baseman Jeff Baker. “Everything is fresh.”

Even the festive crowd was right, an announced 37,116 that wasn’t quite the full house claimed but made merry noise like one.

On Opening Night hope springs eternal, and it does most nights when a certain young pitcher takes the mound for Miami.

Jose defected here from Cuba in 2008 on his fourth attempt, along with his mother Maritza and sister, who settled in Tampa. Olga, here on a visitation visa, had reunited with Jose last November after six years apart, arranged with the Marlins’ help, but hadn’t seen him pitch here ‘til Monday.

The women sat 10 rows up behind the home dugout, standing to cheer all of Jose’s strikeouts. They were standing a lot.

“I wish him the best always but tonight even more because my mother is going to get the chance to watch him and she hasn’t for many years,” Jose’s mother had said. “I’m relaxed because I already watched him last year, but she hasn’t so she’s not calm. It’s been such a sudden change in his life. It hasn’t given us time to really realize everything he’s done.”

Fernandez was NL Rookie of the Year last season and second in voting for the Cy Young award. Now at 21 he has become the youngest Marlins Opening Day starter, youngest in MLB since 2007, and youngest in the NL since Dwight Gooden, who was 20, in 1985.

That Fernandez is such a quintessential Miami story gives him a chance to grow to become a home-grown (team-drafted) star close to the level Marino was to the Dolphins and what Dwyane Wade is to the Heat. He is that special.

A joking teammate hung a jersey in Fernandez’s locker Monday that intentionally misspelled his name and had the wrong number. The prank was unnecessary, of course.

Keeping Jose grounded seems to be in safe hands with the women he calls Mama and Abuela.

Herald sports writer Andre C. Fernandez contributed to this column.

About Greg Cote

Greg Cote

@gregcote

Greg Cote has been a Miami Herald sports columnist since 1995 and also writes the Random Evidence blog and NFL predictions along with his notorious sidekick the Upset Bird. He has covered Hurricanes football (1984-88), the Dolphins (1990-91) and major events including Super Bowls, NBA Finals, World Series, Stanley Cup, Olympics and World Cup.

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