Jose Fernandez stood speechless inside the Marlins dugout at Sun Life Stadium a few days after his selection as the 14th overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft.
All-Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez, at the time the organization’s superstar, had greeted the 18-year-old during batting practice.
Fernandez, who missed his high school graduation in Tampa to visit the team with his parents and girlfriend, amazed those who met him with his demeanor and maturity.
Two years later, much has changed since that introduction.
Ramirez plays for the Dodgers after an underachieving season in a new ballpark with a fresh look. Fernandez, meanwhile, assumed the face of the franchise after a historic first year.
The Baseball Writers’ Association of America validated his 2013 achievements by naming him the National League Rookie of the Year on Monday.
Fernandez received 26 of 30 first-place votes to beat Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig and Cardinals starter Shelby Miller.
“It means a lot,” Fernandez said in a teleconference. “It means a lot to get this award and just the year I wasn’t planning on being in the big leagues. I got a chance to be at the All-Star Game, and I try to go out there and compete and give everything that I’ve got.”
The 21-year-old became the only Cuban-born player to win the NL award, going 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA (second-lowest in the Majors).
In an otherwise forgettable 62-100 season, Fernandez provided energy and passion to a team of college-aged players. In his 28 starts, the Marlins went 18-10. Fernandez bested all NL rookies in ERA, strikeouts (187), batting average against (.182) and WHIP (0.98). He retired Puig in three at-bats during an Aug. 19 matchup.
After the All-Star Game, which he attended as the lone Marlins representative, Fernandez went 7-1 with a 1.32 ERA and solidified his mark as the rotation’s ace.
It’s stunning to look back and realize Fernandez’s call-up came only after right-handers Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez started the year on the disabled list.
Originally set to start the season in Double-A Jacksonville, Fernandez had never pitched above Class A. His time in the majors wasn’t expected until at least the summer.
“It was nice to just have a chance to be there — give it a chance at least — see if I could make the team or not,” Fernandez told MLB Network. “I had my room and everything picked out. I was going with Christian (Yelich). I had my room and everything set up, and the day before they told me, ‘I don’t think you’re going to Double-A no more.’ I was pretty nervous and pretty happy about it.”
Miami placed an innings limit on Fernandez before the season. In his last outing on Sept. 11 against the Braves, Fernandez tossed seven innings of one-run ball and hit a home run in his final at-bat.
It was a storybook ending (minus the benches-clearing incident that followed) to an already movie-like script.
Fernandez, who unsuccessfully tried to escape Cuba with his mother several times as a kid, eventually reached Tampa after being shot at and imprisoned during his attempts.
Marlins Park, where he went 9-0 with a 1.19 ERA, is fittingly situated in the Miami neighborhood of Little Havana.
“For me — in my personal opinion — as a kid the first thing you wake up in the morning to do is thinking about baseball, about playing baseball,” Fernandez said. “All the kids in Cuba play baseball. They don’t have the equipment, but they go play and they do want to be a baseball player because it’s the major sport in Cuba.”
A winner of the MLBPA Players Choice for NL Outstanding Rookie last week, Fernandez is also a finalist for the NL Cy Young. He joins Dontrelle Willis (2003), Hanley Ramirez (2006) and Chris Coghlan (2009) as previous Marlins recipients of the NL Rookie of the Year award.
Yet despite all the surreal experiences of the past two years, Fernandez once again found himself speechless like that Thursday afternoon two years ago.
His grandmother, who lives in Cuba and listens to all of his starts on the radio, surprised him at Marlins Park while he sat through interviews on Sunday. They hadn’t seen each other since he left the island and didn’t return that final time.
“Didn’t know anything about it,” Fernandez said. “I was in shock for a couple of minutes. I sat down in my chair. It was pretty amazing. I showed her around the stadium. Pretty excited to have her here.
“To me, her and my mom are everything that I’ve got. (She’ll) get to see me playing in the big leagues.”