Monday, September 26th seemed like a normal day inside Marlins Park in Miami, Florida, featuring a Major League Baseball (MLB) NL East matchup between the New York Mets and hometown Florida Marlins. But there wasn’t a dry eye in the stands or the dugout on this particular evening, as this night was dedicated to superstar pitcher Jose Fernandez, who tragically died Sunday morning. All of his teammates wore his number, 16, with Fernandez written in white on the black jerseys. Before the game, a moment of silence and special ceremony were held to honor Fernandez as the Marlins’ eight defensive players surrounded the pitching mound. Every single Marlins player and manager wrote his number “16” into the dirt on the pitcher’s mound: the spot where Fernandez would usually be during games.
Fernandez, 24, was killed in a boating accident on Sunday, September 25, only one day before . At around 3 a.m. Sunday morning, his boat was found flipped over a rocky jetty near the entrance to Miami Harbor. He was with friends Emilio Macias and Eduardo Rivero, who were also killed in the accident. Authorities claim that Fernandez and the two other victims died upon immediate impact with the jetty.
In his four year career, Fernandez recorded a 2.58 ERA in 55 starts, winning 38 of those games. Opponents averaged .209 when batting against Fernandez, which helped name him an NL All Star in 2013 and 2016. But his story of escaping from Cuba to come to the United States and play baseball is much more powerful than any statistics.
Fernandez grew up in Santa Clara, Cuba, playing the sport he loved in the ballpark in Little Havana. He grew up on the same street as Cardinals’ shortstop Aledmys Diaz; Diaz’s dad was the main influence for Fernandez to continue playing baseball as a career. When he was 14, Fernandez tried to escape from Cuba three times, but was caught every time and sent back by the US Coast Guard. After serving nine months in prison, Fernandez successfully landed in Mexico on his fourth attempt. During the trip, 15-year-old Fernandez had to jump into rough waters to save his mother from drowning.
Once he reached the United States, he joined his stepfather in Tampa, Florida and began to work tirelessly toward his dream of pitching in the MLB. He attended Braulio Alonso High School in Tampa, where he played varsity all four years, receiving offers to sign with multiple MLB teams before he was 18. He worked with pitching coach Orlando Chinea, who is known for developing Cuban talent in Florida. His coaches claim he chopped down trees, on top of hours in the weight room, each day to get stronger.
In 2013, Fernandez was drafted 14th overall by the Miami Marlins, where he spent the next four seasons. He instantly became a standout player in the MLB, earning NL rookie of the year, NL All Star honors, and placing 3rd in the Cy Young award race. During the majority of the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Fernandez was sidelined with elbow and bicep injuries. However, he had another All Star season in 2016 once fully recovered.
The Marlins’ organization as a whole was devastated in sharing the news of his death, announcing the cancelation of their game against the Braves in a press conference Sunday afternoon. Manager Don Mattingly was moved to tears talking to the media about Fernandez. “When I think about Jose, I see such a little boy. The way he played, there was just joy with him.”
“His love of the game, passion for the game, respect for the game, love for his family, his teammates,” explained Marlins’ President David Samson, “That’s Jose. There is not a player behind me missing.”
The loss of Fernandez affected Marlins’ second baseman Dee Gordon the most. After hearing the tragic news, Gordon visited Marlins Park, where a small memorial has been set up on the mound with Fernandez’s hat next to the “16” stenciled into the dirt by the grounds crew. “You see these guys more than you see your family,” Gordon said, “and when you see a guy younger than you with so much promise, enthusiasm and potential, it makes you look in the mirror. I will never take this game for granted now.”
Gordon was first to bat in Monday’s game and took the first pitch right-handed to honor Fernandez. Then, something magical happened. Gordon quickly switched helmets and lined up in the left-handed batter’s box as he watched another ball go by. 2-0 count. On the third pitch, Gordon blasted the ball to right field, soaring over the number 16 painted on the right field wall into the stands — his first home run of the season. As Gordon slowly trotted around the bases, he began to burst into tears and pointed to the sky after touching home plate. As the crowd erupted in applause, Gordon was embraced by every one of his teammates in the dugout.
The Marlins went onto win the game 7-3, but it was like no one in either dugout cared about the result. Both sides walked back to the locker room solemnly, humbled by the events that had taken place in the past 24 hours. Everyone in the stadium had a connection to Fernandez as either a teammate, a friend, an idol, or even a rival. Fernandez’s success story resonates among all baseball players and fans around the MLB.
Featured image: Rob Foldy/Getty Images.