The baseball world erupted on Sunday morning with condolences following the death of Fernandez. Tweets from all over the sport flooded timelines as players, managers, and fans awoke to the startling news that this dynamic young player had died (along with two friends) in an early morning boating accident.
Baseball writer Jayson Stark tweeted: “The tragic death of Jose Fernandez is one of the saddest sports stories I can ever remember. A vibrant, upbeat guy with a special talent. RIP.”
It’s not that baseball players are any more special or important than others. It’s not that the death of a 24-year-old athlete is more tragic than someone who dies young. When Fernandez was killed on September 25, 2016, at the age of 24, many were stunned and saddened by the loss of the young pitcher.
Fernandez was a world-class athlete, a spectacularly talented pitcher whose abilities astounded those who witnessed it. Beyond that, he was a man of honor, courage, dedication, and commitment. For Fernandez, life was about more than just the sport he loved to play. For him, life was about family and joy.
Fernandez honored and treasured his family, especially his mother and grandmother. He was intensely proud to become an American citizen in 2015 after defecting from Cuba, and the oppressive regime in that country. He publicly lamented that he had to leave his beloved grandmother Olga behind when he and his mother escaped the island in 2007.
“Everything I do is for her,” said Fernandez in a televised interview. He called his mother and grandmother, the “loves of his life.”
Fernandez grew up in Communist Cuba, ninety miles from Florida, and as a teenager, he and his mother made the challenging and painful decision to leave everything behind. They were determined to flee to the United States, a place where Jose could pursue his baseball dream, a place where they could hope to have a better life. Fernandez despaired of leaving his beloved grandmother Olga behind, but they believed they had no choice.
Three times Fernandez and his mother tried to leave and three times they failed. Each time they returned to Cuba, at least once spending time in jail. The fourth attempt nearly ended in disaster when rough seas and high waves pounded the crowded boat. Fernandez, then 15, heard a splash and screams, realizing that someone had fallen overboard. Without regard for his own life, the young man dove into the raging sea, and as he approached the victim, realized it was his own mother, Maritza.
“Grab my back, but don’t push me down,” he said to her. “Let’s go slow and we’ll make it.” It took them fifteen minutes to reach the boat, Fernandez paddling one-handed with his pitching arm, as his mother held on to his left shoulder. After surviving that ordeal, they reached Miami, via Mexico, and settled in to begin life in a free country.
Determined to become an American citizen, Fernandez learned English and played baseball at Braulio Alonso High School in Tampa, Florida. The Marlins made him a first round draft pick in 2011; he spent two years in the minors, wherein 2012, he threw six innings of a combined a no-hitter for the Greensboro Grasshoppers.
Reaching his dream.
The young pitcher made his big league debut on April 7, 2013, going on to pitch an inning in that year’s All-Star game, and winning Rookie of the Year honors. The following season, he suffered a torn collateral ligament in his elbow, resulting in Tommy John surgery. Recovery caused him to miss the rest of the 2014 season and the first half of 2015.
When he returned to the mound in July 2015, he struck out six and hit a home run in a six-inning appearance – an emphatic statement that he was back in the game he loved. Little more than a year later, he pitched an eight-inning shutout win on September 20, 2016, bringing his Major League record to 38-17 with a 2.58 ERA. Sadly, that win came in what was his final game.
Four days later, Jose Fernandez, one of the greatest young talents we have ever seen, was dead.
For this exceptional young man, there was so much that was so positive in his short life. There was the potential of a long, incredible career; the promise that he could have become one of the greatest pitchers of all time. It was the zeal and joy he displayed that could not help but make observers smile, which showed him to be a special person.
“I tried four times to escape from Cuba,” Fernandez said in this 2012 story by David Heck on MilB.com. “I got caught three times – I was in jail in Cuba, I got kicked out of school, I was placed under house arrest. It’s tough over there; a lot of my family’s still over there. But it feels good to be here and to go out to the field every day and play the game that you love. It’s amazing.”
Team and Twitter reacts.
Marlins Manager Don Mattingly’s voice cracked with emotion as he spoke of the joy he saw in Fernandez, who unabashedly displayed his love of life and baseball.
The MLB twitter account: “We honor José Fernández by celebrating his life, and the incredible joy he brought to our baseball family.”
Jose Fernandez leaves behind a stunned baseball world, grieving family and friends, and his pregnant girlfriend, Carla. He was, by all accounts, a man of honor, integrity, and courage; a man dedicated and committed to his family, friends, teammates, his team, the game of baseball, and everything he did.
It is a sad day, not just in baseball, but also for the rest of the world, when we lose such a unique, talented, and decent man.