“I think that what makes a player good is not out there on the field, it’s who he is as a person. I know where I came from, and I know what I want.” — Jose Fernandez, age 20 upon receiving 2013 National League Rookie of the Year honors.
Jose Fernandez isn’t just special in memory. He is special there, right in front of you, smiling, laughing, blowing kisses to the camera.
He was just here, present, together, happy. Was.
By now you know a few things about Jose Fernandez. He was a pitcher for the Miami Marlins. He was a good one at that, 2013’s Rookie of the Year and a two-time All-Star. In four seasons, he was 38-17 with a 2.58 E.R.A. This season, he was 16-8 and led the majors in strikeouts per nine innings with 12.5. The 6’2″, 240-pound righty was Cuba-born and America-proud. Next spring training he was scheduled to show up with a little extra lift as a new father.
Fernandez got on a speedboat Saturday evening, just a few days removed from a winning start where he struck out 12 and gave up no runs to the division-winning Nationals, when the boat overturned on a jetty off Miami Beach.
The way he went seems fraught with irony. From the time he was barely old enough to cradle a baseball — much less know anything of the geopolitical storm he was caught in trying to escape — his family was attempting to flee their native land.
The Fernandez family would make three unsuccessful attempts to leave Cuba and each resulted in a prison stay. Fernandez rarely dwelled on those days when asked — or maybe the press didn’t need the whole story. He did say he was “treated like an animal.”
At age 15 in 2008, his family made a fourth attempt. Fernandez’s boat was shot at by guards from the shore, but made it into open waters unblemished. Hours into the journey, while speeding through Gulf of Mexico at dusk, a female passenger fell over the side of the boat and Fernandez, without hesitation, dove in to rescue her.
The woman in peril was his mother, Maritza.
“This high,” Fernandez told The Tampa Bay Times in 2009, raising his hand to the ceiling describing the size of the waves. “I thought I was going to die many times.”
The boat arrived safely in Mexico and the family crossed the border, settling in Tampa, Fla. Fernandez became a star at Braulio Alonso High School and was selected 14th overall by the Marlins in the 2011 draft. He signed for $2 million and would be pitching in a Marlins uniform within 19 months.
Less than a year later, the bilingual Fernandez was honored and spoke at the Baseball Writers’ of America’s annual dinner in New York along with AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers. Sandy Koufax, Mariano Rivera and one of Fernandez’s boyhood idols, Miguel Cabrera, were all in attendance. Fernandez flushed when he got up to talk. “Six years ago, I was trying to come to the United States, and I was in jail, thinking about one day playing in the big leagues,” Fernandez said. “I’m here now, next to all these guys.”
America, for all that we argue about it, for all that it is and all that it isn’t, is still a land of possibility and peril. America is hard. For those who have chosen to come here however, it seems the hardest part was getting here.
A lot of us seem to forget that, or at the very least never really get that.
Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, like Fernandez, is a standout from the last wave of old-Cuba refugees in baseball. Also known for his outsized personality and formidable swagger, Puig attempted to answer a couple of questions about Fernandez by his locker before the game Sunday, but was unable to. Instead, he buried his head into his hands and sobbed.
Fernandez was handsome. He had an unforced grin that was cartoonish and much too big for his face. He played jokes. He was loved. He once insisted his profound joy in baseball came from playing the game “like a game.” It was that simple. Real life was black shark-infested waters and dingy prison cells and being shot at by your own countrymen. Throwing a ball for money — that was easy. That came with a smile.
And now that smile is eternal.
From here on, Fernandez will remind us that the best of us are often the ones who work the hardest to get here.
The ones who want it, the ones who earn it — are the real ones who make this country great.