Jose Fernandez spent a lot of his free time the past 13 months playing dominoes, particularly with a set a Marlins fan gave him as a gift.
“It’s safe,” the 22-year-old Cuban-born pitcher said Tuesday of the table game about as near and dear to his heart as the one he plays to earn a living. “With dominoes, I’m not hurting anybody or myself.”
Fernandez can finally put those dominoes away until the offseason.
Pain free and healthy again after a grueling comeback from Tommy John surgery, the National League’s 2013 Rookie of the Year will make his return to the mound Thursday afternoon at Marlins Park against the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants. And odds are that fan who gave him the set of dominoes will be cheering hard.
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The Marlins are expecting a crowd of more than 30,000 for Jose Day. That’s an attendance number they have eclipsed only four times this season: Opening Day, two games against the Yankees last month and University of Miami Family Day, the first Saturday in May.
The Marlins, all but out of the playoff race at 14 games under .500 two weeks before the All-Star Break, have sweetened the pot for fans to make sure Fernandez’s return is well-attended. Not only is it Summer Camp Day, it’s also Senior Day (fans 55 older get in free) and $1 hot dog day. Fans who don’t qualify for those discounts to get into the ballpark can use a Subway restaurant coupon and pay $5 to sit in the home run porch in right field or bullpen reserved seating areas.
But cheap seats aren’t the real reason Thursday’s game will be well-attended. Marlins diehards have been looking forward to Fernandez’s return for a long time, and with star slugger Giancarlo Stanton sidelined for four to six weeks with a broken hand Jose Day could be as good as it gets the rest of the season.
“Of course, I’m very excited,” said Dori Amador, 48, a season-ticket holder who has seats in the Jose’s Heroes section above The Clevelander in left field.
Two weeks ago, Amador drove two hours from her home in West Kendall to Jupiter, the Marlins’ spring training home, to see Fernandez pitch in a rehab assignment. She needed an emotional lift.
“We need his energy,” she said.
Andres Salgado, a 30-year-old entertainer at a theme park in Orlando and Marlins diehard, needed Fernandez to come back so he could get a haircut. Born and raised in Hialeah, Salgado went without a shave or a trim until Wednesday when Fernandez and team barber Hugo “Juice” Tandron gave him one during a ceremony at Marlins Park.
Salgado vowed when Fernandez had season-ending surgery on his elbow May 16 of last season to let his hair grow until his favorite Marlin returned to the mound.
“Other Fish Family members did things, too,” said Salgado, who chronicled his hairy journey by posting monthly update videos on YouTube. “One of my Twitter followers grew the Mohawk Jose had last year and vowed not to cut it until he came back. Another kept one of her nails Marlins themed all this time. We also had people give up soda, cupcakes and other things until Jose came back.”
Amador gave up her seats in the Jose’s Heroes section, opting instead to move around to other empty sections inside the park. She will be back in the seats she pays for Thursday.
“I hated baseball, thought it was boring until I started coming here to bring my 92-year-old aunt who loves baseball,” Amador said. “My aunt loved seeing Jose pitch and we would wait for him after the games. He was so sweet to her. He would call her his girlfriend and she would blush. He made her day and it made me fall in love with him. When they came out with Jose’s Heroes, I said, ‘OK, I got to get season tickets.’”
One might imagine ballplayers forget fans they meet as soon as they walk away. Fernandez, at least, hasn’t. He smiled Tuesday when he was reminded about his now 94-year-old girlfriend. He also remembered how he pointed out Salgado as “that guy who won’t get a haircut because of me” when Salgado was standing in line to pose for a photo at Marlins Winter Warm-up in February.
“I’m always talking to the fans — even during the games,” Fernandez said. “What [Salgado] did was special. That’s real love right there.”
Fernandez has always seemed to deliver the love right back to the home fans.
The Marlins are 17-3 in Fernandez’s 20 career home starts. During that stretch, Fernandez is 12-0 with a 1.09 ERA at home. He has never allowed more than two earned runs or six hits in any of those starts. He also has held opponents without an earned run in nine of those games.
In 2013, the Marlins drew at least 20,000 in six of Fernandez’s final seven starts and averaged nearly 3,700 more fans a game than the season average in his starts after the All-Star break.
Last season the Marlins drew an average of 28,923 fans in Fernandez’s five home starts — 7,600 above the average.
“We don’t expect him to be the savior of the season,” Marlins president of baseball operations Mike Hill told WQAM on Tuesday. “But the one thing he does every day of his life is he’s going to show that passion and enthusiasm. And I just think having that around will be infectious.”