The baseball world was sent into a state of shock on Sunday morning when news broke that Miami Marlins star Jose Fernandez had lost his life in a tragic boating accident off the coast of Miami. The outpouring of emotion around the game was unlike anything many have ever seen, given the rarity with which we are forced to cope with the passing of an active superstar. That’s exactly what Jose Fernandez was, a superstar, and the painful realization that he will no longer be a part of the game we all love is a difficult truth to face.
The universal pain felt around baseball is a testament to the impact that Jose Fernandez had on so many lives, and the void he leaves behind may never be filled. Fernandez meant so much to the game, not only as one of its most impactful players, but for the unadulterated joy that he brought to the field every time he pitched. He was one of the most genuinely exciting players in the game because he gave fans an opportunity to enjoy the game along with him and feel as if they knew him even while watching from home.
In addition to being one of the game’s brightest stars, Fernandez was also one of its most humbling stories. He made immeasurable sacrifices in his pursuit of freedom, fighting through adversity that included his imprisonment for attempting to defect, the near loss of his mother, and separation from his family in Cuba. Fernandez was unsuccessful in his first three attempts to reach the United States, yet he still found a way, even blindly saving his mother after she fell overboard on an attempted defection. This young man was a hero long before anyone in the United States even knew of him.
After his eventual arrival in the United States, Fernandez displayed the immense talent that made him so special, performing well enough to be drafted 14th overall by the Florida Marlins in the 2011 amateur draft. By April 2013, Fernandez was starting his first major league game, having made the leap straight from Single-A at just 20 years old. The young right-hander immediately showed that he belonged, striking out eight batters in his first start and showcasing some of the most electric stuff in baseball.
Armed with a high-90’s fastball and a devastating slider, Fernandez was anything but overmatched in his first season, posting a 2.19 ERA on his way to an All-Star selection and the National League Rookie of the Year Award. To top off what was an outstanding rookie season, Jose was reunited with one of the most influential people in his life: his grandmother, Olga. As Jose says in the video, his grandmother played a large role in his ascension to Major League Baseball. Once Fernandez reached the big leagues, Olga would spend her nights on the roof of her house, listening to the Marlins’ Spanish radio broadcast. Their reunion capped off what was one of the greatest debuts in baseball history, and Jose was on his way to stardom.
After such an incredible rookie year, the 2014 season presented yet another obstacle for Fernandez, as Tommy John surgery limited him to just eight starts. The long recovery process kept Fernandez sidelined until July 2, 2015.
Upon his return from injury, Fernandez eliminated all doubt that he was one of the game’s toughest, most resilient players, re-establishing himself as one of the baseball’s true aces while making just 11 starts. This season, Fernandez was on track to record his best season yet, with a 16-8 record to go along with 253 strikeouts in 183.1 innings. Fernandez was at the top of his game, and that is part of what makes it so difficult to cope with his loss.
Fernandez was one of the greatest talents that baseball has ever seen. He had one of the best pitching arsenals in baseball the moment he stepped onto a major league field, and yet he still had room to grow. But despite all the incredible things he could do physically, his greatest gift to the game and its fans was the amount of fun that he had while playing. Watching a kid in his early 20’s tip his cap to opposing batters after giving up a hit was something nobody had ever seen before, and Jose made it a staple of his game. His charisma and easy-going nature will be forever missed.
Jose Fernandez not only changed the face of the Marlins, he changed the face of Miami. His presence, as a Cuban defector who had reached the pinnacle of baseball, served as a beacon of light for the Cuban community around Marlins Park. There was a different atmosphere on “Jose Day” that could light up a stadium that was rarely filled to capacity. Jose’s impact on the community in which he played was unlike any other in baseball, and he lived to perform in his home ballpark, posting a 29-2 career record at home with a 1.49 ERA.
For me, the most difficult aspect of Jose Fernandez’ passing is the fact that he was just 24 years old and had recently announced that he would soon be a father. Fernandez leaves behind some of life’s greatest gifts, and that makes it nearly impossible for us to feel any sense of peace in the aftermath. In reading and watching the reactions of those who knew him best, it became evident that despite his youth, Jose made an impact on the lives of everyone he knew. The void he leaves behind will never be filled, and it is stories like the one shared by Detroit Tigers third baseman Casey McGehee that make it easy to see why Fernandez’ passing was mourned with such widespread affection:
Casey McGehee and Fernandez were teammates in Miami in 2014 and half of 2015. The news hit him every bit as hard as it hit Iglesias. Fernandez formed a special bond with McGehee’s son Mack, who has cerebral palsy.
“The toughest part for me is having to tell my son what happened,” McGehee said. “A lot of people, they don’t really know how to treat Mack. For some reason, Jose had a heart for him. You get to the field, and it wasn’t like ‘Hey, Jose, do you want to keep an eye on him?’ Jose would come and grab him, and they were together from the time they got on the field to the time my wife came to pick him up.”
“I think that really says a lot about what was truly in his heart, and what kind of guy he was.”
The world may never know another story like Jose Fernandez: a young kid who fought through the most difficult of circumstances to become one of the greatest athletes in the world, all while smiling and positively impacting the lives of everyone around him. There are very few athletes who transcend their respective sports, but Jose Fernandez did just that. It was truly a joy to watch him play the game, and for that we should all be forever thankful. For those who knew him personally, this time of mourning will be unlike any other, as his personality was one that cannot be duplicated. All we can do now is pray for those who loved this young man most, that they might find the strength to carry on. Rest in peace, Jose.