José Fernández lived with a fiery passion. He was on the top step of the dugout during his off-days whooping it up whenever his teammates made a great play. That emotion sometimes rubbed his opponents the wrong way, but Fernández always backed up his flair with substance. The 24 year-old two time All-Star pitcher was killed in a boating accident on September 25. Gone too soon, his death was felt by athletes and teams across sports as they paid tribute to the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year with moments of silence before games and messages through social media. The Miami Marlins, after they cancelled that day’s scheduled game, returned to the field and honored their fallen teammate with a fitting victory over the New York Mets.
His journey to the majors began in Santa Clara, Cuba where he played baseball with dry branches and the best rocks he could find, according to a 2013 profile by The Ringer’s Jordan Ritter Conn. After being arrested in the Caribbean sea on their way to Miami and sent to a Cuban prison at 14 years-old, he and his mother sought to enter the United States through Veracruz, Mexico. During his fourth and final attempt to defect, he heard a woman scream as she fell overboard. Fernández instantly dove into the violent waters not knowing the woman he rescued was his mother Maritza until she was within arm’s reach. They made their way to Tampa where former Cuban national team pitching coach and fellow defector Orlando Chinea took Fernández under his wing.
In 2013, a 20 year-old Fernández debuted against the Mets throwing five innings of one-run ball with three hits and eight strikeouts. The right-hander flashed a bright orange glove with matching cleats in his first All-Star appearance. Days before he was announced R.O.T.Y., he was asked what message he would tell his grandmother Olga in Cuba. “Everything I do is for her and I’m gonna keep working for her and hopefully, one day, she’s gonna get to see me here.” Moments later, his abuela ran his arms and smothered him in her bosom . Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria arranged a two-year visa for her so she could watch him pitch. They toured the stadium, played a quick game of catch and simply enjoyed each other’s company. On Opening Day 2014, José threw a brilliant six innings with the matriarchs of his family in the stands for the first time on American soil.
His last outing was a vintage performance: eight shutout innings with 12 strikeouts, three hits and zero walks versus the Washington Nationals. Later that day, he shared a photo of his girlfriend cradling her belly telling the world they were expecting a baby. The news of his death stunned Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes who hung his jersey in their respective dugouts in remembrance of their compatriot. Close friend and teammate Dee Gordon posted on Instagram the pitcher’s mound with Fernández’ hat, jersey number and a bouquet of flowers with the caption “I love you and I’m so hurt to see my brother go…I know I’m being selfish but you weren’t just a teammate to me…you were family…I love you Josey!!!”
Fans formed a vigil outside Marlins Park—Miami’s Cuban community clung onto Fernández like a local hero. Every member of the Marlins fought back tears as an In Memoriam tribute video aired in the stadium before the game. They all sported a Fernández jersey emblazoned with his name and number and Gordon, a left-handed hitter, began his at-bat in a right-handed stance. Two pitches later, he launched his first home run of the season into the heavens. Half the team channeled Fernández’ jubilant spirit as they were on the top step of the dugout cheering. Gordon choked up as he crossed home plate, pointed to the sky and players and coaches embraced him. After the game, they gathered around and left their hats on the mound, some signed with final farewells.
Fernández was exactly the kind of budding star baseball needed. He electrified any field he stepped on, injected life into America’s pastime and approached each day with the youthful glee of a Little Leaguer. His potential was unrivaled, his joy unmatched and his family’s sorrow unimaginable.