Monday marks Jose Fernandez's death anniversary
Ralph Fernandez was barely awake when he saw the screen on his cellphone illuminate, indicating incoming text messages. They were from Maritza Gomez, Jose Fernandez’s mother.
Rafa delfy Murio
Llama por favor
Ralph Fernandez, no relation to the star pitcher for the Marlins, couldn’t believe what the words on his cellphone were telling him. It couldn’t be true. Jose “Delfy” Fernandez dead?
Why, the Tampa attorney and close family friend had spoken to Jose only a couple of days earlier, when the pitcher brashly predicted he was going to throw a no-hitter in what would be his final start of the 2016 season and wanted him to be there to see it.
But there were the numbing words, hitting him with the force of a Fernandez fastball.
“I was in shock,” he said. “My first reaction was, ‘Something is not right with me.’ ”
He read the message to his wife.
“She said, ‘You’re having a nightmare.’ And then she looked at it.”
Jose Fernandez was dead. So were Eduardo Rivero and Emilio Macias, who accepted the pitcher’s invitation to join him on his boat, the Kaught Looking, and paid with their lives.
It has been one year since Fernandez’s boat plowed into a jetty, turning the worlds of three families and a Major League Baseball franchise upside down. Lives were lost. Lawsuits were filed. A young star’s legacy was irretrievably altered.
The Marlins are about to wrap up another losing season. The franchise is being sold. The mangled wreckage of the Kaught Looking sits in a North Miami warehouse, the property of an insurance company.
Fernandez’s ashes are scattered at sea.
The shock has waned. But the pain and scars remain fresh.
“I think it’s hard to quantify the emotional toll it took,” Marlins president David Samson said. “The fact of the matter is [that] a year later, it’s still not a lot of time.”
Said Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill: “I don’t know if it will ever sink home.”
It hasn’t yet for Fernandez’s mother, Maritza.
“I feel just like the first day,” she said through an interpreter. “Every day is the 25th. There is no difference.”
Fernandez was 24 and seemed to have it all.
Good looks. Charisma. A swagger and confidence that oozed every time he stepped on the mound.
He had a life story that resonated in Miami, a Cuban defector who crossed over on a boat and rose to fame and stardom.
Most of all, he was an elite talent.
“He was sort of must-see TV when he pitched,” an American League scout said. “He had a lot of Pedro Martinez in him. He was a fierce competitor. But he was also an entertainer. Jose was an entertainer. He brought energy to the game. And it was obvious he loved Miami.”
Did he ever.
When he pitched in Miami, Fernandez was close to unbeatable. He went 29-2 with a 1.49 ERA at Marlins Park. On the road, he wasn’t the same, going 9-15 with a 4.05 ERA.
His agent, Scott Boras, once suggested — partly in jest — that Fernandez take his mother and grandmother with him when the Marlins were out of town to create the feeling of pitching at home.
“From a baseball perspective it was a grand setback of something that was extraordinary and could have continued to be extraordinary and record setting,” Boras said.
Ralph Fernandez said Jose adored Miami so much that he had confided he wanted to sign a long-term deal with the Marlins when he became eligible for free agency after the 2018 season.
“It was top secret,” Ralph Fernandez said. “He knew the fact that it would shave off a significant sum [of earnings] by staying. But he wasn’t leaving Miami. The decision had already been made. I know for a fact he wouldn’t have signed elsewhere, I don’t care what anybody says. I think Scott was well on board on it. We just couldn’t leak it out.”
Ralph Fernandez said he felt Jose would have been better off staying in Miami for other reasons, as well. He said he thought Jose acted more responsibly at home than he did when he was out of town, which could help to explain why he didn’t perform as well elsewhere. He said while Jose had his own apartment in Miami, he spent most nights at home with his mother.
Miami, he said, was “more regimented” for Jose.
“I was never concerned about drugs,” Ralph Fernandez said. “I was concerned about drinking. He was distracted out of town a lot. That’s a diplomatic way of saying things.”
One time, when the Marlins were playing out of town and Jose was scheduled to pitch the next day, he demanded that Jose call him the night before, just to make sure he wasn’t out having a good time.
Jose called at the designated time. He yawned, then yawned some more.
“It was too many yawns in a row,” said Ralph Fernandez, who determined that Jose wasn’t as tired as he sounded. “He said, ‘OK boss, I’m in for the night.’ All of a sudden, I hear honking and someone yelling, ‘Let’s go!’ ”
But it was in Miami — not Chicago or Pittsburgh or Phoenix or any of the other cities with major-league teams — where tragedy struck. Fernandez had been scheduled to make his final start of the season on Sunday, Sept. 25, a day game.
Instead, the decision was made to push back his start to the 26th.
As a result, on the night of the 24th, and knowing he wouldn’t be pitching the next day, Fernandez stopped in at American Social, a Miami bar. While there, according to investors, he ordered drinks, then went out on his boat, accompanied by Rivero and Macias.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission eventually concluded that Jose was behind the wheel of the boat, speeding, legally drunk and high on cocaine.
The families of Macias and Rivero have pending lawsuits against the pitcher’s estate, claiming negligence. Ralph Fernandez, who is defending the case, disputes the findings that Jose was behind the wheel of the boat at the time of the accident.
Even as their season has turned out like so many of the others, Marlins players say they continue to draw inspiration from Jose. They have worn a patch bearing the pitcher’s No. 16 on their uniforms all season. His old locker inside the team’s clubhouse has been turned into a memorial.
“You always wonder, from a baseball standpoint, where we would be now with him,” Marlins infielder Miguel Rojas said. “You never know how many Cy Young [awards] he would have won, how many more games he would have won, how many more home runs he would have hit.”
Said second baseman Dee Gordon: “One of the best players probably to put on a Marlins uniform can’t play no more and is not here anymore, and it’s just weird because, honestly, as players and athletes, we sometimes get that feeling that we’re invincible and nothing can happen to us, until something happens.”
Samson said a day hasn’t gone by over the past year in which he hasn’t thought of Jose.
“[We] missed him on the field [pitching] every fifth day and off the field the other four,” Samson said.
The scout said the Jose Fernandez story was one that ended badly — and far too soon. But he doesn’t think any less of him, despite the circumstances of his last night alive.
“Not at all,” the scout said. “We’re all human. You can go to Cooperstown and you’ll see a lot of people in there who had addictions and demons. Did it ultimately cost him his life and the lives of his two friends? Yeah. Could it have been avoided? Sure it could have. But it’s not always how the story ends. It’s not Disneyland.”
The Marlins will be playing on Monday at Denver’s Coors Field, a ballpark where Fernandez, as a 20-year-old rookie in 2013, jumped into the home run fountain for a cool dip, just for fun.
“Why not?” he said then, one day before going out to beat the Rockies.
Maritza won’t be watching baseball Monday. She has other plans.
“At 6:30 in the morning, I’m going to be at the rocks, at the jetty,” she said. “A year has not made a difference.”