Willie Mays. Jackie Robinson. Tom Seaver. Pete Rose.
Jose Fernandez added his name to that elite list on Monday when the 21-year-old pitcher for the Marlins was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year.
And the best part about it for Fernandez was that he was able to enjoy the special moment with perhaps his biggest fan: his 78-year-old grandmother, Olga Fernandez Romero.
They embraced after Fernandez was told he had won.
“This is out of this world,” Fernandez said of not only winning the coveted award, but also of having his grandmother on hand to join in the celebration.
Thanks in large part to some behind-the-scenes work by Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, Fernandez Romero received a five-year visitation visa to exit Cuba and visit her grandson in the United States.
To the pitcher’s surprise, they were reunited Sunday at Marlins Park.
Fernandez became the third Cuban-born player to win a Rookie of the Year award, joining Tony Oliva (1964) and Jose Canseco (1986). And Fernandez had to beat out another Cuban, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, to claim the title.
Fernandez received 26 of 30 first-place votes from members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, with Puig receiving the other four. The Cardinals’ Shelby Miller was third in the voting.
Fernandez went 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA that ranked second in the majors. Every fifth day when he took the mound, he helped make a dreadful season for the last-place Marlins a touch more bearable.
Fernandez became the fourth Marlin to win the prestigious award for rookies, joining Dontrelle Willis, Hanley Ramirez and Chris Coghlan. He is also the first pitcher from a 100-loss team to win the award since Tom Seaver of the New York Mets in 1967.
The Marlins went 18-10 in games he started.
But Fernandez wasn’t exceptional only by rookie standards. His season ranked as one of the best among all major-league pitchers — rookie or veteran. As a result, he is also one of three finalists, along with Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright, for the NL Cy Young Award, given to the league’s top pitcher.
“I’m happy,” Fernandez said of his initial success in the majors. “But I think I can get a lot better than I did.”
Though the Marlins drafted him with their first-round pick in 2011 out of Tampa’s Alonso High, it was still a rapid ascension to stardom for the unflappable right-hander. He was expected to start the season at Double A Jacksonville. But he landed a spot on the Opening Day roster when injuries created a vacancy in the starting rotation.
Fernandez had his ups and downs in April, finishing the month with a 0-2 record. But he took off after that, and from June 1 forward evolved into one of the most dominant pitchers in the majors.
He was picked to represent the Marlins in the All-Star Game, where he retired the three batters he faced, striking out two of them. His dominance didn’t end there as he went 7-1 with a 1.32 ERA after the All-Star break.
For the season, opposing batters hit just .182 off Fernandez — the best figure for any starting pitcher in the majors. The Texas Rangers’ Yu Darvish was next on the list with a batting average against of .194.
“I think next year is going to be a lot harder than my first year,” Fernandez said. “I haven’t touched a ball [since the season ended], but I can’t wait to. I can’t wait for game time.”
Fernandez, who defected from Cuba when he was 15, is excited at the prospect of his grandmother finally getting a chance to see him pitch in person next season. She probably won’t have to wait long for the opportunity, as he will likely be the Marlins’ Opening Day starter on March 31.
“She will come to all my games,” he said. “She will fight with umpires. She will do everything. Just having her here and being with her every second of the day is pretty amazing.”
Wil Meyers of the Tampa Bay Rays won the American League’s Rookie of the Year award.