Jose Fernandez didn’t a say word. He merely signed a 12-year-old boy’s glove — the one adorned with a Cuban flag — and smiled.
It was a brief interaction as part of a conga line of kids wanting autographs, but it was meaningful for Victor Victor Mederos (yes, that’s his full name).
The scene was Marlins Park, March 31, 2014. Fernandez, 21 at the time, had just won the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year award, earning All-Star status that same season. On that day in 2014, Fernandez became baseball’s youngest Opening Day starting pitcher since Dwight Gooden in 1986, and the Marlins star went on to beat the Colorado Rockies 1-0, striking out nine.
Fernandez died nearly two years ago — in a horrific boat crash on Sept. 25, 2016 — and he never got a chance to know that Mederos was very much like him.
Both were born in Santa Clara, Cuba. They entered the world in the same maternity ward: Hospital Materno Mariana Grajales de Santa Clara. Fernandez was 6-3, 243 pounds. Mederos, 17, is already 6-3, 215.
Both had difficult escapes out of Cuba — Fernandez by sea, where he saved his mother from drowning, and Mederos by land through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and into Texas, making the trip as a six-year-old boy with his mother and brother.
Both were/are right-handed pitchers with blazing fastballs and outgoing personalities. The pitching forms, the fade haircuts and the ability to hit as well as pitch all line up in eerily similar patterns.
“A lot of people compare me to him, and I’m grateful,” said Mederos, who led Monsignor Pace to the Class 5A state title last season as a sophomore. “That’s a good [pitcher] to be compared to.
“It still gives me goosebumps. [Fernandez] did it the best he could. He just made an unfortunate mistake that led to his death.”
Mederos has heard the reports that Fernandez was under the influence in the boat crash that claimed the life of two other people.
“I want to focus on the good [Fernandez] did,” Mederos said, “and he did a lot of good.”
Mederos, who has committed to the University of Miami but is also a strong candidate to be a major-league draft pick in 2020, was the only South Floridian among the 43 players invited to try out for the USA Baseball Under-18 team this summer.
Roster cuts will be announced soon, and Mederos hopes to be among the 20 players who will represent the U.S. in Panama City, Panama, Nov. 23 to Dec. 2 in the Pan American AAA Championships.
“He tops out at 96 [mph], and he has a nasty curveball,” Pace coach Tom Duffin said of Mederos. “I leave the draft analysis to the pro guys, but Victor fits the mold. If he continues to improve and stays healthy, you could see him drafted in the first three rounds.”
Duffin comically refers to Mederos as a “big donkey” because of the teen’s large frame, and that was on full display this past summer in Fort Myers.
In the state semifinal game on May 31, Mederos slugged a two-run homer to lead Pace to a 4-3 win over Avon Park.
Two days later, Pace beat two-time defending state champion Jacksonville Bolles, 10-4. Mederos earned the win, pitching 6 2/3 innings in nearly 100-degree heat. He struck out the first two batters in the seventh and final inning before giving way to a reliever after reaching 108 pitches.
In addition, Mederos hit a three-run double off the wall in right field, breaking open what had been a slim 5-4 Pace lead with two outs in the bottom of the sixth. With his bat and his arm, Mederos led the Spartans to their first state title since 2006.
“I was on top of the world,” said Mederos, who hit a first-pitch curve ball for his game-breaking double. “Winning a state title was a great feeling.”
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