Jose Fernandez, the Infectious Defector
How Jose Fernandez’s character impacted baseball and Miami communities
As one of the Most Valuable Player award candidates, Daniel Murphy of the Washington Nationals, approached the left handed batter’s box with a chance to turn the game around in his team’s favor, one could only assume the anxiety felt by the pitcher in such a critical situation. Any pitcher would feel at least slightly overwhelmed by the task of having to surrender one of the game’s best, but on the mound was not just any pitcher. As Murphy finished his pre-pitch routine, Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins stood confidently on the mound awaiting the umpire’s discretion to resume play. The count was one ball and two strikes, the game was 1–0 Miami, but one swing of the bat by Murphy could alter the outcome. Jose took the sign from his catcher and began his precise windup signalling to everyone in the stadium that his best possible pitch was about to cross home plate. Fernandez unleashed his electric right arm towards home plate and as the ball released his hand a sudden silence filled the arena. His future looked so bright, only twenty-four years old and already considered elite. Fans of the game flocked to the stadium to witness his dominance and always marked in their calendars the days Jose Fernandez was scheduled to pitch. Little did they know, Jose’s final pitch to Murphy would be the final pitch of his life.
Two hours before first-pitch, Jose Fernandez (who was supposed to be looking over the scouting report of the opposing team) was out by the right field stands near the Marlins dugout signing autographs. Jose felt that being a professional baseball player was more than just getting paid to go out onto the mound every five days and throw a baseball. To him, being a baseball player was being a role model for children and teenagers across the globe who had dreams of becoming professionals just like Jose. As he was finishing up signing his last autograph, the Marlins manager, Don Mattingly urgently called him over to the bullpen so he could get started with his warm-up. To Mattingly, (and rightfully so) it was imperative to win this game, so he needed his ace pitcher to be “locked in” from the moment he stepped onto the field. For Jose however, while he did see this game as crucial to the team, he also saw it as just another game. For Jose every game was a privilege that he was blessed to have the opportunity to have. So, Jose wanted to cherish every aspect of being able to play the game he loved for a living, which of course meant interacting with his fans as much as possible.
As Jose began his return to the bullpen, the sound of a young boy sobbing captured his ear. Without hesitation, Jose dismissed his manager’s request to begin his warm-up and headed over to the stands yet again. As he approached the right field seats, Jose scanned the crowd in search of the source of the crying. Suddenly a little boy and his father caught Jose’s eye. Determined to cheer this little boy up, Jose climbed over the barrier and into the stands in order to confront the boy and his father face to face. When he asked the boy’s father why the little boy had been crying, the father replied by saying that he was upset because he was too late to get Jose’s autograph. Jose then turned his attention completely to the little boy and proceeded to show the baseball community just the type of individual he was. Jose ripped out a piece of paper from his scouting book and explained to the little boy that he would give the boy his own autograph but only if the little boy would give his autograph to Jose. Dumbfounded and delighted, the little boy obeyed Jose’s directions and proceeded to exchange autographs with his idol. What makes this type of gesture so praiseworthy is that in most people’s opinions, it is rare to see a player go to such a high extent just to satisfy one fan; however, with the case of Jose, this type of gesture had become routine. Unlike many of the professionals in the game today, Jose’s journey to the major leagues wasn’t as simple as being an elite player in high school and college and then getting drafted. Jose’s odyssey was one filled with many hardships that many players couldn’t even begin to fathom, but those hardships were what shaped Jose into not just an incredible player, but a truly stand up individual as well.
As night turned into dawn and the tranquil town of Santa Clara, Cuba fell asleep, fourteen year old Jose Fernandez sat in his cell wide awake dreaming about America and playing baseball. He had just been playing the game he loved to play with his friends two days before on one of the fields in Santa Clara. Jose began to remember while in his cell how he’d shined that day. He could still feel the protruding red laces on the ball rubbing against his fingers. He pictured going through his pitching motion and feeling his arm whip through the air as he hurled the ball towards home plate at frightening speed for a fourteen year old. He remembered how his teammates chanted his name and carried him off the field the moment Jose struck out the last batter of the game with a blazing fastball. That was only two days ago, but for Jose, two days without baseball may as well have been two months for someone else. All Jose wanted to do was play baseball. All he wanted was to just get back to the place that felt like a natural home to him. All he wanted was to get back on that field, but for now, he was here.
Alongside him were two grown men convicted of murder, Jose had been captured yet again by the Cuban authorities while attempting to defect from Cuba.
“When are you going to learn Jose?” questioned his warden. Jose remained silent. Jose had already been in this jail cell two times before, yet nothing was truly urging him to cease trying to escape.
By the time the authorities decided to free Jose he had turned fifteen years old. Just one month after his release, Jose and his mother were on another boat yet again in route to connect with Jose’s stepfather, Ramon Jimenez, who had settled in Tampa, Florida. Miraculously, the tiny sailboat that Jose and his mother were aboard had successfully evaded the authorities this time; however, another obstacle just as daunting awaited.
As the boat trekked on through the Gulf of Mexico, a sudden rough patch of water displayed itself to the passengers. The boat swayed from side to side with passengers clinging onto the slick railing in a desperate attempt not to be thrown overboard. As the boat moved through the vicious waves a flying body caught the eye of Jose. Without any regard for his own personal safety and without even knowing who this individual was, Jose leaped from the deck and into the treacherous waters. As he paddled his way to the lost passenger, a familiar face revealed itself. Jose frantically paddled towards his own mother and miraculously reached her. For five minutes Jose clung to his mother who couldn’t swim before the crew on the boat reached them. Once the boat had finally reached the two, the passengers pulled both of them back onto the deck. Jose Fernandez had blindly saved his mother’s life.
In the top of the eighth inning, with two outs, a runner in scoring position, and a 1–0 lead, Jose Fernandez came face to face with Daniel Murphy. Flashbacks of his seemingly impossible journey ran through his mind as Jose took the sign from the catcher. Any baseball fan or player with knowledge of the game knows that with the game on the line one must be cautious when selecting what type of pitch to throw. Usually, the pitcher will attempt to make the batter swing at an offspeed pitch when the pitcher is ahead in the count, which Jose was. However, Jose wasn’t intimidated by Murphy even the slightest bit. Jose had spent a cumulative year in prison, had been a passenger on a boat that nearly capsized during his final attempt at freedom from Fidel Castro’s regime, and had saved his mother’s life by blindly leaping into the frigid and treacherous waters of the Gulf of Mexico to retrieve her. Compared to these hardships, battling against one of the best hitters the major leagues had to offer was almost laughably undaunting. Jose of course chose to throw a fastball, asserting his dominance and proving that he wasn’t willing to shy away from a challenge.
Murphy aggressively attacked the pitch but to no avail. As the ball left Murphy’s bat and plummeted to the Earth, the crowd cheered on with excitement as the second baseman Dee Gordon fielded the ball and threw out Murphy for the final out of the inning. Jose exited the field and was rewarded with a booming applause from the crowd and a massive bear hug from manager Don Mattingly. This had been the best pitching performance of Jose Fernandez’s entire career, a career that was on the path to achieving even greater feats. A career that was possibly en route to the Hall of Fame.
“Mr. Mattingly can you tell me what you saw when you had the privilege to watch Jose Fernandez play day in and day out?” questioned a far too enthusiastic reporter. A broken voiced manager stumbled through an answer as tears rolled down his face,
“When I watched Jose play I didn’t see a man going out there to do his job. Baseball wasn’t a job to Jose. It was an honor and blessing for Jose to be able to play the game he loved so much for a living. Thinking of Jose, it’s gonna be thinking of that little kid. I see such a little boy in him … with the way he played. There’s just joy with him when he played. When he pitched, I think that’s what the guys will say too. You watch kids play little league or something like that. That’s the joy that Jose played with. The passion he felt about playing, that’s what I think about.”
Jose Fernandez’s was killed early in the morning on September 25, 2016. He and three other individuals about the same age as Fernandez were in a speed boat travelling at high velocities near South Pointe Park in Miami Beach when suddenly, the boat ran into a jetty too difficult for the men to see at this time of night. The boat that Fernandez spent so much time on and adored skyrocketed thirty-two feet into the air and landed upside down on the jetty, crushing Jose Fernandez and his friends, along with the hearts of millions across the globe.
Jose’s sudden death stunned and mortified the entire baseball and Miami communities. Jose was seen and is still seen as an individual who represented baseball and the Cuban community of Miami perfectly. Jose’s character was a perfect hybrid of pure enjoyment of being able to fulfill a lifelong dream with intimidating confidence gained through the unfathomable experiences of defecting at the tender age of fifteen. The Cuban defector’s infectious attitude was unparalleled, which makes his untimely death that much bitter. From comforting a crying fan to being a fearless competitor on the field, everything that not just a baseball player but an athlete in general should aspire to be, Jose Fernandez was. A young man who relished waking up in the morning and taking advantage of what life had to offer, Jose’s infectious smile, laugh, and just pure enthusiasm for life will be forever missed. Jose Fernandez reminds us all to bask in the great gift of being able to wake up in the morning and embark on a new adventure everyday, but at the same time to not be intimidated by the challenges that the adventure may have to offer. Jose Fernandez may have been taken away from the world, but the legacy of him and more importantly his character progresses, like a boat in the night with its sights set on freedom.
Mitrosilis, Teddy. “Marlins Manager Don Mattingly Breaks down Discussing the Death of Jose Fernandez.” FOX Sports. N.p., 25 Sept. 2016. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.
“For Cuban Americans, Jose Fernandez’s Story Is Our Story.” CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.
By Mike Axisa. “From Cuba to All-Star: The Jose Fernandez Story.” CBSSports.com. N.p., 03 June 2015. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.
Rothstein, Matthew. “This Video Of José Fernández Asking A Young Fan For His Autograph Shows The Kind Of Person He Was.” UPROXX. N.p., 27 Sept. 2016. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.
Sports, Fox. “Here’s Jose Fernandez’s Beautiful and Telling Last Pitch.” New York Post. N.p., 25 Sept. 2016. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.