Jose Fernandez, an All-Star pitcher for the Miami Marlins, died early Sunday morning in a boating accident in south Florida. The 24-year-old Cuban native was a fan favorite, especially in Florida, not least for his harrowing escape to America to chase his dreams.
Before he was 15, Fernandez and his mother had made three failed attempts to defect from his communist island nation. The man all of Miami mourns today had once floated in the warm ocean waters of its coast gazing at the city’s skyline as the lights of the Coast Guard approached his small boat of defectors. He served several months in a Cuban prison at 14 after being apprehended and sent back.
On their final try, Fernandez and his mother went to a southern beach to await a boat to Cancun, taking a chance on rougher seas and a longer route to America, but fewer patrols. Under the sweeping beam of a nearby lighthouse, they huddled in a cave until a speedboat arrived and took them to another boat in international waters.
Once aboard, Fernandez recalled to Grantland in 2013, the captain told them: “Turn around and look. This is the last time you’re ever going to see Cuba.” Fernandez was skeptical, but they seemed to be on their way:
And then he remembers the splash. He heard it one night while he was making small talk with the captain. After the splash, he heard the screams. A wave had crashed over the boat’s deck and swept Fernandez’s mother out to sea. He saw her body and before he had time to think, he jumped in. A spotlight shone on the water, and Fernandez could make out his mother thrashing in the waves about 60 feet from the boat. She could swim, but just barely, and as Fernandez pushed his way toward her, he spat out salty water with almost every stroke. Waves — ‘stupid big,’ he says — lifted him to the sky, then dropped him back down. When he reached his mother he told her, ‘Grab my back, but don’t push me down. Let’s go slow, and we’ll make it.’ She held his left shoulder. With his right arm — his pitching arm — he paddled. Fifteen minutes later, they reached the boat. A rope dropped, and they climbed aboard. For now, at least, they were going to be OK.
After landing in Mexico, Fernandez and his mother took two buses north to the border, where they crossed into Texas. Because of American policy on Cuban defectors, they were welcomed by immigration authorities as soon as they arrived. It was 2008.
Between his arrival and his untimely death, Fernandez lived an American dream few could have conceived, including him. He tried out for a former Cuban national team coach in Tampa, who worked with promising athletes. While still working to master English, he brought his fastball up to 94 mph and led his high school team to two state titles.
“I thought about how many people there are in America,” he told Grantland. “Out of all of those people, a lot of them are baseball players. Out of all of those baseball players, a lot of them are pitchers. And then I would think, are any of those pitchers out there working out, right now? Probably, somewhere, yeah. So I couldn’t quit.”
He blew through the minor leagues after being drafted in 2011, was an All-Star by 2013, had Tommy John surgery on his elbow in 2014, and came back to have an All-Star season again in 2016.
In 2015, he became a U.S. citizen. Addressing the crowd of newly minted Americans, Fernandez flashed his signature broad smile, saying:
‘This is one of my important accomplishments,’ Fernandez said. ‘I’m an American citizen now — I’m one of them. I consider myself now to be free.’ …
‘I thank this amazing country for giving me the opportunity to go to school here and learn the language and pitch in the major leagues. It’s an honor to be a part of this country, and I respect it so much.’
Officially a U.S. citizen! Congratulations, José! pic.twitter.com/C4AwO43Ug1
— Miami Marlins (@Marlins) April 24, 2015
In 2013, he was reunited with his grandmother, Olga Fernandez, from whom he’d been separated since his defection. Fernandez called his grandmother “the love of my life … She’s my everything,” and her passion for baseball had driven his. The two shared a room in their modest home in Cuba. A tiny 60-something woman with opinions on pitch counts and placement, Olga used to take a radio to the roof of her home in Cuba to get reception to listen to her grandson play in the big leagues.
Marlins team owner Jeffrey Loria worked to get Olga to America to see her grandson play, surprising him on camera with his abuela’s arrival in what he thought was an MLB Network feature on his rookie season.
The young ace could barely muster words as he hugged his grandmother tight. That night, he threw nine strikeouts, giving up one run in six innings. It was opening day of his second season.
“She hasn’t seen me pitch for a really long time,” he said with a smile after the game. “I’m gonna see what she tells me I did wrong now.”
Five days before he died, Fernandez posted a black and white photo of his girlfriend on the beach, cradling an obvious baby bump. The caption read, “I’m so glad you came into my life. I’m ready for where this journey is gonna take us together. #familyfirst”
Fernandez understood, more than most, what it meant to have his whole family here, in one place. One can only imagine the joy he would have taken in growing that family in the country he loved.
Before he died, he left his teammates with a thought about freedom, something he often tossed around in the locker room. Usually a sunny jokester, this was more of an admonition than a celebration: “You were born into freedom. You don’t understand freedom, really.”
Although he didn’t have much time to appreciate it, Fernandez truly understood freedom, how precious it is, and how rare in the history of mankind. May his life and his hard-earned freedom be a reminder to us not to take either for granted.