Miami Marlins pitcher José Fernandez’s death is a blow, but remember his joy

Miami Herald Editorial Board

The always smiling José Fernandez in his early days as a Miami Marlins pitching ace.
The always smiling José Fernandez in his early days as a Miami Marlins pitching ace. AP

It’s amazing — the nightmares that José Fernandez survived and the common reward of the American Dream that he didn’t. The Marlins pitcher with the golden arm made it across the Florida Straits to this country on a boat fleeing Cuba. This, after failed attempts landed him in prison on the island.

Early Sunday, another boat ride, this one for fun, ferried him away forever. A 32-foot SeaVee on which he was riding with two friends smashed into the unforgiving rocks of Government Cut. All three died. Mr. Fernandez was 24.

A boat in which José Fernandez was traveling early Sunday morning struck a jetty at the mouth of Government Cut full speed and flipped, killing him and two friends.

Mr. Fernandez was the other Mr. 305, our biggest hometown sports star today, and its most joyful. And his loss has sapped so much of that infectious joy out of our community, our team and Major League Baseball.

Mr. Fernandez was an engaging ambassador, the face of exile and success, a young man who found the American Dream by throwing a ball — extremely well — and, in the process, lifted his family and Greater Miami into a better way of life.

Whether or not you are a sports fan, you were charmed by Mr. Fernandez. He wasn’t the least bit embarrassed to put his love for his mother and grandmother on heartwarming public display. His grandmother made it here from the island thanks to his fame. And he was about to become a dad. He recently went on social media to announce that he and his girlfriend were expecting a child.

Mr. Fernandez usually played his best baseball to the home crowd. The young phenom was a marvel on the mound, striking out hitters like no other Marlins pitcher before him.

Despite his youth, Mr. Fernandez was one of the team’s leaders, an enthusiastic teammate who played with joy and abandon, a cheerleader for the team, a young man full of life, never too busy for fans. Sportswriters say a frequent phrase that he uttered was, “I’m lucky.”

But what did Oprah Winfrey call luck? “Preparation meeting opportunity.” Mr. Fernandez, who, as a child hit baseball-sized rocks with sturdy tree branches, clearly was ready when chance gave him a wink.

He knew that fame, wealth and a Major League baseball career were not originally in the cards. At a tearful Marlins news conference Sunday, team president David Samson said Mr. Fernandez often tried to explain how far he had come in a journey that began after he finally escaped the island on a boat at age 15.

“He would say to me: ‘You were born into freedom, you don’t understand,’ ” Mr. Samson told reporters.

President of the Miami Marlins, David Samson, center, speaks during a press conference as distraught president of baseball operations, Michael Hill, left, and team manager, Don Mattingly, right, and players mourn at the news of pitcher Jose Fernan

And things were going his way. After elbow surgery last year, Mr. Fernandez was getting his mojo back. His last start against the Washington Nationals was the best of his four-year career, he told a teammate. He allowed no runs, only three hits and struck out 12 batters — just the latest indication of how great he was going to be. The Marlins definitely needed him, but Major League Baseball hungered for a star like him, too.

After that stellar showing last week, the usually stern-faced former Major League slugger Barry Bonds, now a Marlins hitting coach, hugged and squeezed the young pitcher in the dugout in front of fans and cameras. Mr. Fernandez laughed like a kid.

That’s one of the final public images of him: joyful. And, no doubt, it will be one of the most enduring.

He was a pitcher primed for the record books. Instead, there is this final, heartbreaking stat: Miami Marlins pitcher José Fernandez, 1992-2016.