When Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez died tragically in a boating accident this week, Miami didn’t just lose one of its best athletes. A former Rookie of the Year who set the team’s single-season franchise record for strikeouts this season, Fernandez’s talent was unrivaled. But his personality and story made him a towering figure in my hometown.
The diverse community of Miami admired how he left Cuba for a better life in the United States. After three unsuccessful attempts to defect, which led to prison time and a school expulsion, 15-year-old Fernandez and his mother finally made it in 2008. He famously rescued his mother from drowning during that perilous trip.
Fans in Miami also loved Fernandez’s personality. Any one of his teammates will tell you that he lights up any room that he enters. “Thinking about Jose, it’s going to be thinking about that kid,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said tearfully the day of his death. “I see such a little boy in him when he played. There was such joy in him when he played.”
Any picture or video that has Jose Fernandez in it will probably include him smiling or expressing joy in some way. Even at such a young age, he ranked among icons like Dwyane Wade and Dan Marino as local fan favorites. “Jose Day” is what the Marlins called the day that Fernandez started. It sounds like a holiday, and for Marlins fans, it was.
Fernandez will be remembered not just for his big arm and big personality, but for his big heart as well. He supported many different charities, and every Sunday he invited local kids to the game at Marlins Park. Kids who couldn’t afford to go to a major league baseball game now got to hang out with Jose.
When I covered the Marlins game at Fort Bragg and watched him step onto the field, he seemed to be in paradise. He was so excited to converse with soldiers and sign autographs for them. Fernandez often smiled, but it was easy to see how overjoyed he was to be honoring the troops. Before that game, Fernandez told me how important it was for him to be playing at Fort Bragg: “It means the world to me, especially coming from Cuba. Being free here is for sure a big deal.”
Fernandez showed how much he loved and appreciated the United States. He perfectly embodied the American Dream and represented all Cuban-Americans who risked their lives to have a better one elsewhere.
Having been a resident of Miami for every year of Fernandez’s career, getting to watch Jose Fernandez pitch felt like Christmas every time. His immense talent was always matched by the passion and energy that he brought to the ballpark. Watching Fernandez was like watching your favorite movie, you just couldn’t get enough. Being able to go to Marlins Park and watch a player that gave all the energy he had in his body is something I’ll cherish forever.
(Photo credit: Rob Foldy/Getty Images)