Greg Cote

What made Jose Fernandez special, and it went beyond baseball, lives on

Jose Fernandez fan, Kelsi Figueroa, 12, fights back tears upon hearing of her sports hero's death. Kelis brought her Fernandez shirt to the game prior to its cancellation as she waited with others to receive commemorative bats. Miami Marlins star pitcher, Jose Fernandez, who died last night during a boating accident, is remembered with his number displayed outside Marlins Park.
Jose Fernandez fan, Kelsi Figueroa, 12, fights back tears upon hearing of her sports hero's death. Kelis brought her Fernandez shirt to the game prior to its cancellation as she waited with others to receive commemorative bats. Miami Marlins star pitcher, Jose Fernandez, who died last night during a boating accident, is remembered with his number displayed outside Marlins Park. cjuste@miamiherald.com

The scene outside Marlins Park was a surreal tableau by midday Sunday. That afternoon’s baseball game had been canceled. A large video screen with a black background bore the No. 16 in orange and, under it, Jose Fernandez’s name. Fans, dozens, soon hundreds, wandered outside the gates like lost souls, looking for someplace to put the shock and the grief. Where there should have been cheering for a ballgame inside, it was so quiet you could almost hear the tears falling.

Myriam Valdes, who walked there from her Little Havana home, clutched a signed Jose jersey, holding it as tenderly as if it were a religious raiment. She was crying.

“How he came here, what he made of himself and did for his family,” she said, not easily, “that is Miami. That is us! He was ours!”

A teenaged boy in a black 16 jersey sat alone on a concrete bench, his head in his hands.

Fans streamed into the team store, most exiting with Fernandez jerseys.

“Now, it is all we have of him,” said Jason Inman, who drove down from Fort Lauderdale. “Memories.”

Inside the ballpark, in a large interview room, Marlins president David Samson, manager Don Mattingly and director of baseball operations Michael Hill filed in to try and explain what defied words: The most tragic day in South Florida sports history. Behind them Marlins players walked silently in. Every one of them. Fernandez’s second family — all in uniform for a game that would not be played.

Tears streamed down the cheeks of Dee Gordon. Mike Dunn held Fernandez’s jersey. Martin Prado could not hold his emotions in check, his voice wavering as he said, “He told us the last game he pitched, against the Nationals, was the best game he ever pitched. And it was his last game.”

Giancarlo Stanton would say later, “I’m still waiting to wake up from this nightmare. I lost my brother today. I can’t quite a comprehend it. His joy lit up the stadium more than lights could.”

The Marlins will try to get back to work Monday, playing in the honor of the teammate shockingly gone, playing through the pain.

“We’re a wreck,” Stanton described the team.

Everything else shrunk in importance Sunday morning as Miami and South Florida awakened to the news so unbelievable: that Fernandez, the Marlins’ ace pitcher, only 24 years old, had been killed in an overnight boating accident off Miami Beach that also took the lives of two friends of his. Fernandez leaves behind the mother with whom he came from Cuba in search of freedom, the beloved abuela he also was able to bring here, and a girlfriend pregnant with their first child — among so many other now mourning.

All at once the Dolphins’ Sunday home opener against Cleveland seemed to shrink to insignificance, with the football team including a moment of silence for Fernandez, and for our community’s shared loss. Suddenly Chris Bosh’s continuing medical issues for the Heat were locked into new perspective. Perhaps being forced to retire isn’t so bad after all.

Fernandez had originally been scheduled to pitch Sunday but was told his start would be delayed until Monday night. Had that change not been made, he likely would not have been out on that boat when the late night-to-early morning tragedy occurred, apparently a single-boat accident that saw the 32-foot craft plow at high speed into the sharp rocks of a jetty off Government Cut.

The player’s loss to the Marlins is seismic. His career numbers, frozen now, show a 38-17 record, a 2.58 ERA and far more strikeouts (589) than innings (471). He was a phenomenal 29-2 in his home ballpark. By consensus he was considered one of the four or five best starting pitchers in baseball, and in so many ways he was just getting started.

What made Fernandez special cannot be confined, though, to statistics or what he did with a baseball in hand.

He was as much fun to watch in the dugout as on the mound, his gleaming smile infectious, his love of being a teammate obvious.

Think of a Miami athlete, in any sport, who exuded the most joy, who showed the most passion, who seemed like he’d play for free. Jose Fernandez was the answer to all of that.

“I saw the little boy in him,” an emotional Mattingly said, his composure a real effort. “The way kids play Little League, that’s the joy Jose played with.”

More than any of that, though — more than the excellence as a pitcher or the effervescence of personality — we loved Jose for the hope and dream he embodied.

His story was so Miami, a true American tale but with a Cuban accent.

He was the Marlins’ brightest light, Miami’s star, the pride of anyone who’d ever preceded him out of Cuba, or followed.

He tried twice to traverse the 90 miles from tyranny to freedom but was caught. He spent some time in a Cuban jail. On his third try he made it here in a crowded boat. Along the way he heard someone fall overboard and jumped in for the rescue. It turned out to be his mother.

The water gave Jose Fernandez new life. And the water took it away.

One of the recent times I spoke to Jose, the only time I spoke to him about his journey, not his pitching, he told me, “You were born into freedom, you don’t understand freedom.”

He wasn’t being dismissive, he was being instructional. And he might have been right. He called the day he became a U.S. citizen the proudest day of his life.

He was the perfect hero for Miami, and that is why, by the start of next season, there should be a larger than life-sized statue of Jose out front at Marlins Park.

See, anyone who risks everything to make it here in search of freedom — all of their stories are small miracles. If they settle into a new life here and end up washing dishes, they still have succeeded. They still are free.

Jose Fernandez happened to come here and in fairytale fashion become a superstar pitcher for the Marlins, but he was still, first and always, the teenager who risked wanting better for himself and his family.

He was a hero before he ever stepped on a mound.

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