When he was not throwing heat from the pitcher’s mound or pulling pranks on teammates in the dugout or playing dominoes with his grandmother, Jose Fernandez could often be found on a boat.
The ocean represented freedom to Fernandez, who had fled Fidel Castro’s island dictatorship in Cuba to pursue his American baseball dream in Florida. The Miami Marlins ace lived and played with a joyousness that embodied the gratitude he felt for the opportunities stretching out before him toward the infinite blue horizon.
Fernandez was as competitive on the water as he was on the diamond. His favorite catch was swordfish, a fighting fish, just like the marlin.
His remarkable journey began and ended on a boat. He survived the treacherous crossing of what Cubans call the “Caribbean’s largest cemetery,” jumping in to rescue his mother from drowning one stormy night. He died when his 32-foot SeaVee named “Kaught Looking” crashed at high speed into the South Pointe jetty at 3:15 a.m. Sunday, killing Fernandez and two friends. A day later, four baseballs autographed by him washed up on the beach.
Fernandez was 24. He is survived by his mother, grandmother, stepfather, stepsister and a girlfriend who is expecting Fernandez’s first child, a baby daughter, in February.
“So many times we talked about dreams, things left to do, the future,” said Ramon Jimenez, the stepdad who raised Fernandez from infancy. “He was the light of everyone and now that light has been extinguished.”
Even when Fernandez hit the lowest, loneliest point in his career -- an elbow injury that required reconstructive Tommy John surgery and a 14-month rehabilitation -- he was as relentless as the Gulfstream current. He’d ask to do extra exercises, extra laps, then he’d bound over to other patients in the gym, clapping and shouting, “You can do it!” as they grimaced through their weightlifting sets.
“He was a 100-mph human being, not just a 100-mph pitcher,” said Ron Yacoub, physical therapist and rehab consultant for the Marlins. “Fast cars, fast boats -- even rode his bicycle fast. He made it to the majors fast, he rehabbed his arm fast.
“You could look at his death as a tragedy, or you could look at it as the only way he was destined to go.”
Fernandez was excited about becoming a father. The 2013 National League Rookie of the Year could also look forward to more All-Star games, future Cy Young awards, and a huge payday after his initial contract expired in 2018. His fastball was feared, his slider so elusive it was nicknamed ‘The Defector.’ He threw a team-record 253 strikeouts this season. He burned with a fire to win and he’d remind the manager, “Hey, I’m available to hit!” even on his off days. Fernandez, who had earned $4.4 million in his five-year career, would have commanded up to $30 million per year on his next deal, although probably not with the frugal Marlins.
“He was like a little kid,” manager Don Mattingly said, describing Fernandez’s energy.
Fernandez spent his last night on his boat, hoping to blow off steam about something that was bothering him, possibly a spat with his girlfriend. After Saturday night’s game, he sat in the clubhouse, preoccupied and tense, teammates said. He invited his best friend on the team, Marcell Ozuna — whom he had nicknamed oso, bear — to come along.
“I told him, ‘Don’t go out,’ but everybody knew he was crazy about that boat,” Ozuna said. “I never thought my brother would be gone so soon. It’s left an empty feeling so big.”
Fernandez, who docked his boat at the Cocoplum Yacht Club, wound up at the American Social Bar & Kitchen on the Miami River at about 1 a.m. with friend Eddy Rivero, who phoned his friend Emilio Macias to join them. At about 2:30 a.m., patrons took photos with Fernandez, who looked uncharacteristically solemn. The two young men who grew up in West Kendall boarded the boat with Fernandez, headed across the bay toward Government Cut and went for a spin along South Beach, even though another friend warned them not to go boating so late at night. Miami-Dade Fire Rescue divers found two bodies trapped beneath the boat, which was upended on the jetty rocks, its shredded hull jutting into the sky, and one body on the ocean floor.
“I want to erase from my mind the images of the accident,” Jimenez said. “I want to remember Jose as that good boy, full of life, who fought like a lion on the field and gave me the most tender hugs.”
Fernandez was scheduled to make his last start of the season on Monday. Instead, he was honored by tearful teammates who wore No. 16 Fernandez jerseys during their victory over the New York Mets. He was remembered by Miami on Wednesday when people waved goodbye as the hearse carrying Fernandez’s casket drove from Marlins Park through Little Havana where he’d once been Grand Marshal of the Three Kings Parade to the seaside Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba, the spiritual home of Cuban exiles. There, his mother, wearing black, and his grandmother, wearing a white Marlins jersey, kissed the casket and placed two Fernandez jerseys atop it.
The motorcade headed to Westchester, an enclave of the Cuban middle-class, and paused at La Carreta restaurant, where the employees gathered outside and raised their petite white cups in a cafecito toast to Fernandez, a regular customer. Later, thousands paid their respects at a viewing of the closed casket at St. Brendan Catholic Church. A funeral service for family and friends was held at the church Thursday.
“It was easy to love Jose,” said Dan Jennings, former Marlins assistant general manager and manager who treated Fernandez like a son. “He was like a big puppy, and when he walked in the room everyone wanted to pet him. He had that infectious smile that speaks all languages. He was a perfect match for Miami.”
Fernandez grew up in Santa Clara on a small farm with his mother, Maritza, and stepfather. He shared a bedroom with his grandmother. He used to go door to door selling tomatoes and onions.
From a young age, he was fascinated with Cuba’s national pastime, beisbol. He’d wander the fields searching for the perfect stick and collecting rocks, then practice hitting home runs by himself.
He envisioned himself as a pitcher firing fastballs that twisted batters into pretzels. His grandmother, a knowledgeable fan, used to catch for him in the yard, giving him pointers on his delivery.
He attended the provincial sports school and played for junior national teams.
Jimenez, feeling stymied in his career as a doctor, tried 13 times to leave Cuba, but each time a snitch in the group waiting on the beach for the trafficker’s boat would alert the police and the plan was aborted. Jimenez finally got to Florida on his 14th try in 2005 and settled in Tampa, where he found a job at a car wash and then at a hospital and sent money to his family so they could pay smugglers.
Fernandez, then 14, tried to leave the island three times, once getting close enough to see the glow of Miami before the U.S. Coast Guard returned him and his fellow passengers to Cuba. As punishment, he was sent to prison for two months, where he said he shared cell space with a mass murderer and cockroaches.
On his fourth try, 15-year-old Fernandez, his mother, his stepsister, her mother and eight others departed from Trinidad, on the south coast, following the longer, less-patrolled route to Cancun, Mexico.
They encountered rough seas. Everyone was retching over the side. When Fernandez heard a splash and screams, he jumped in and swam through towering waves to rescue a woman he did not know was his mother until he reached her and told her to climb on his back.
Once they made shore in Mexico, they took two bus rides to the Texas border, getting robbed along the way. They stepped onto American soil on April 5, 2008. They joined Jimenez in Tampa.
That’s when Fernandez met the man who molded him into a major-league prospect. Orlando Chinea, former pitching coach for the Cuban national team, mentor to Rolando Arrojo, Jose Contreras, Livan Hernandez and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, had defected to Tampa in 2004. Chinea took “el niño” under his wing.
“He could throw the ball 82 mph but he couldn’t pitch,” Chinea recalled. “Everyone has a talent — singers, writers, dancers. But you need the right person to develop it. If Jose had stayed in Cuba, he would have stayed mediocre.”
That summer, Fernandez trained nearly every day from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. with his gruff teacher, who employed such old-school workout methods as flipping truck tires, tossing medicine balls, running in sand and chopping down trees in the woods. He also ordered 90-minute stretching sessions.
“We built the strength that gave him his power,” Chinea said. “We developed his mechanics and his command. He learned quick because he was smart. He had a strong personality, like me.”
At Tampa Alonso High School, pitching coach Pete Toledo, also a Cuban immigrant, helped Fernandez adjust to American culture and practice his English so the other students would stop teasing “rafter boy.” Toledo knew the kid from Cuba who had no baseball gear was special the first day of fall tryouts when instead of filling out his evaluation sheet with the usual grades, “I drew a big fat line through the whole row of categories and a huge star next to his name and wrote ‘We’re going to Omaha!’ ” Toledo said, using an expression that refers to the College World Series.
Fernandez played like he had in Cuba, where showmanship is not frowned upon. He’d argue with umpires, yell “¡Sientate!” (sit down) after strikeouts, flip his bat, raise his fists jubilantly when he hit a home run.
“He arrived here with that Latin flavor, passionate and emotional on the field,” Toledo said. “My job was to rein him in and tone him down. The kids loved him. He made everyone better because they all wanted to work as hard as he did.”
Fernandez trained with Chinea in the evenings. After a 14-strikeout game he was praised by his coaches but Chinea told him he pitched “like a kindergartner throwing with a short arm.” Fernandez got angry and stomped away. Chinea suspended him for two weeks for acting “spoiled.”
“I told him we’re working to be great in the major leagues, not in high school,” Chinea said. “Our goal was for Jose to become the second Cuban-born player to win the Cy Young Award after Mike Cuellar. All three of us were from Santa Clara.”
Fernandez raised homing pigeons as a hobby. On the team trip to Alonso’s 2009 state championship, the bus pulled over in Bartow for a bathroom stop and Fernandez brought out a box with two pigeons. He gave one to head coach Landy Faedo, who questioned whether the birds would find their way back to Tampa.
“I know mine will but yours might get lost or eaten by a hawk,” Fernandez said, laughing.
When they returned to Tampa, Fernandez’s pigeon was home but Faedo’s never showed up.
“It’s a story we still remember,” Toledo said. “The kid was fun.”
Fernandez wrote “99” on the locker room mirror, signifying the fastball velocity he wanted to attain; the number is faded but still there five years after Fernandez led Alonso to the second of two state titles he won -- hitting a grand slam in the championship game.
Fernandez continued to work long hours with Chinea, whom he nicknamed “Mr. Miyagi,” after the master in the “Karate Kid” movies. Chinea called Fernandez by the name his relatives used, his middle name, Delfin.
“For me, he was my Delfi, my big boy,” Chinea said, his voice cracking. “No one loved baseball more than Delfi. No one. I’m going to miss him.”
Fernandez, 18, was picked No. 14 by the Marlins in the 2011 draft. He spent his first and only minor league season dominating hitters at Single A Greensboro, North Carolina.
“The talent was good, the competitive fire is what set him apart,” said his manager, Dave Berg. “Even on his off days when he was charting pitches from the bleachers and we’d be losing, he’d get mad.
“He was happy-go-lucky but driven to be the best. After he pitched he’d come into the office and ask questions: ‘What else do you got for me? How can I improve?’”
Fernandez was called up unexpectedly soon for the start of the 2013 season when three Marlins pitchers got injured. He was just what the franchise needed after a disappointing first season in the expensive new ballpark in Little Havana -- a charismatic flamethrower who spoke Spanish and could relate to the Cuban fans the Marlins desperately needed to fill seats. He finished 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA, made the All-Star team and was named NL Rookie of the Year.
“My generation adopted him as a son,” said Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, also a Cuban immigrant. “He’s the symbol of everything that is Cuba.”
Life was grand, except Fernandez longed to see his abuela, whom he called “the love of my life,” Olga Fernandez, the grandmother who was back in Cuba, listening to his games on the radio from her rooftop, the only place she could get reception. He sent her TVs, a mattress, shoes, and they talked and cried on the phone, she gave him updates on the Cuban league, critiques of his pitching performances and scouting reports. Separated by that ocean, they had not seen each other in five years.
“Whenever I asked about his father, he changed the subject,” Jennings said. “But when we talked about his grandmother, he got emotional. He revered her. He was devoted to her and his mother.”
In November, after lengthy negotiations with the Cuban government by Jennings and Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, Olga Fernandez obtained a visa and flew toMiami.
“We fooled Jose by telling him to come to the clubhouse for an interview,” Jennings said. “When his grandmother walked through the door, he was paralyzed with happiness. It was one of the most heartwarming reunions you can imagine. He hugged her, walked her out to the field, showed her the mound, pointed to the seats where she would sit to watch him pitch. I realized then how genuine he was, how loving he was.”
Fernandez’s 2014 season was cut short by elbow surgery. Two days after it he met Yacoub, eager to start rehab. He couldn’t even make a fist. He began to cry.
Early on the two butted heads as Fernandez demanded to do more, risking damage to the new ligament. Yacoub told him to find another therapist. Fernandez apologized and cooperated. Over the next 12 months they became fast friends.
“Your team forgets about you when you’re in rehab, so the injury gave him a different type of resolve,” Yacoub said. “He was the antithesis of the big-shot celebrity athlete. He liked to talk to the staff and help patients, and he’d give high school baseball players his cell phone number.”
Fernandez became a U.S. citizen on April 24, 2015. He resumed pitching on July 2.
“When it was his turn to bat, he stood on the steps and said, ‘Hey, Papi, DJ, I’m going to hit a home run for my grandmother,” Jennings said. “And he did! She was in the front row. Wow. It was like a Disney movie.”
Fernandez was proud of his hitting ability. When he was in the groove in the batting cage, he insisted that coaches and teammates gather to watch. As a rookie, when he hit a home run against Atlanta, and admired his handiwork a little too blatantly, the benches cleared and Fernandez was met at home plate by cursing, spitting Braves -- but no punches were thrown. After the game, Fernandez went into Atlanta’s clubhouse to apologize for letting his Cuban brashness burst forth.
“He liked to needle people, he was a jokester, but he also made fun of himself,” Jennings said. “If he made a mistake, he owned up to it. He was a unifier. People gravitated toward him.”
Fernandez looked better than ever in 2016, when he made the All-Star team and went 16-8, pitching superbly over eight innings and striking out 12 in a 1-0 win over the Washington Nationals in his last start on Sept. 20.
“I texted him: Cut that crap out, we’re trying to win the division,’” said Jennings, now with the Nationals.
In his spare time, Fernandez liked relaxing at the big house in west Miami-Dade that he bought for his family for $680,000 two years ago. He was an unabashed mama’s boy.
He also owned a downtown condo and was enjoying his new life with Maria Arias, sister-in-law of his friend Jessie Garcia, a professional fisherman. He and former Marlins cheerleader Carla Mendoza had broken off their engagement five months ago. Mendoza posted a tribute to Fernandez on her Instagram account: “My deepest love goes out to those who saw Jose as more than an athlete, but as a passionate, raw human being. I’m fortunate enough to have loved and be loved by Jose and his family for over 3 crazy, beautiful years.”
He liked to eat at steakhouses or Havana Harry’s, play pool or sing karaoke at the Sunset Tavern, party in Miami Beach. Some people close to him were worried that he was having too much fun for his own good.
“I think the Marlins should have given him a personal advisor to help take care of his behavior outside the baseball field,” Chinea said.
Yacoub said friends had counseled him recently.
“We talked to him numerous times and said, ‘Man, you’ve got to slow down. You’ve got a child on the way,’” Yacoub said. “It was his nature to push boundaries. The way he got here made him cherish life 1,000 times more than normal. He was like a comet that you can’t catch.”
Most of all, Fernandez was drawn to the ocean. He fished avidly with friends and in tournaments with J’s Crew, Garcia’s sportfishing team. A few weeks before his death, an Instagram video shows Fernandez reeling in a fish and dancing with bikini-clad women. He’d bombard Jennings with photos of himself, tan and smiling, red snapper hanging from each hand or a five-foot dolphin cradled in his arms and glistening in the sun.
Fernandez liked to ride across the waves to the Keys or Bahamas to fish for swordfish, wahoo, grouper. Sometimes he’d drive his boat from Miami to Cat Cay for lunch.
“When he had extra time he would play basketball with the club members’ kids,” said assistant dockmaster Bernard Shepherd. “He was very, very nice, very generous.”
Fernandez lived the way he pitched. His wrecked boat has been impounded by authorities. The ocean that was his path to freedom, his sanctuary, became his grave, and the city captivated by his story tries to comprehend its ending.
Reporters Jorge Ebro and Andre C. Fernandez contributed to this report.