It’s hard to come to grips with this, to fathom what happened, to wrap my head around the finality of it.
Jose Fernandez killed in a boating accident.
In my 47 years as a sports writer, many athletes, coaches, administrators and others that I’ve known have passed away, some of them very young. The hardest to accept was the unexpected death of Wake Forest basketball coach Skip Prosser several years ago.
I had an especially difficult time processing that one, even finding the right word for my reaction. Finally, before Prosser’s memorial service, I saw a friend of mine and asked how he was doing.
“I am stunned,” he said, using the word I was looking for.
And that’s my reaction to this news. Stunned, as if I had been hit between the eyes with a sledgehammer.
As this is written, specifics of the accident are still emerging. Fernandez and two close friends were in a 30-foot boat that crashed on some rocks at night, killing all three. Initial reports are that drugs and alcohol were not a factor, but the high speed of the boat was. They all died from the collision, not from drowning. Who was piloting the boat is not yet known.
Fernandez was just a few weeks past his 24th birthday. People that age die every day around the world, from accidents, shootings, disease, famine, overdoses and other causes. All are gone far too soon. But Jose Fernandez is someone I knew, someone I watched, someone I interviewed and someone I liked immensely. And when he made the major leagues one year after pitching for the Greensboro Grasshoppers, he was someone I rooted for.
In early April of 2012, a couple of days before the season opener, the Hoppers made their players available for interviews. Fernandez, then 19 and a year out of high school, was one of several I talked to. Most minor league players have good stories to tell, but no one could match Fernandez.
A native of Cuba, he wanted desperately to escape that country so he could pursue his dream of playing professional baseball.
“The life out there was pretty rough,” he told me. “It’s hard to live. Sometimes you don’t have anything to eat, you don’t have clothes. They don’t let you go; if you (try to) go, they put you in jail. I was in jail down there before and I don’t want to be again.”
He was caught three times trying to escape in a speedboat. Once he got within 10 miles of Miami. Another time, when someone in the boat went overboard, he dived in to rescue them and only then did he realize he had saved his mother.
On the fourth try, he was successful, getting out with his mother and father. He was 15 years old, having endured a tough life, time in jail and three failed attempts to defect. It’s no wonder that he wasn’t in the least intimidated by pitching in the major leagues.
Once he finally reached America in 2008, Fernandez never took this country for granted. On April 24 of 2015, he took the oath to become a U.S. citizen, perhaps the proudest day of his life.
“This is a dream that I’ve had since I was little, and actually achieving it is really amazing,” he was quoted then. “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.”
It was with the Hoppers that Fernandez began to shape his professional career. One thing I noticed about him right away was his confidence.
“I was throwing 94 to 100 miles an hour,” he said of his time in spring training. “My curve ball, my two-seam fastball, my changeup, my slider, my cutter, everything was working good.”
Something else that stood out was his exuberance — and it wasn’t an act.
“Baseball is my life,” he said. “It’s what I love to do. I can’t be without it. My number one goal is to go out there and help my team win. When I do that, I’m pitching good, my team is happy, my coaches are happy, all our players are happy. That’s my goal, keeping everybody happy.”
Fernandez had a ready smile and helped keep things loose in the locker room. His outgoing personality quickly won over his teammates and his immense talent didn’t hurt, either. He pitched the first six innings of a combined no-hitter, which was finished by Greg Nappo and Kevin Cravey. Overall, he posted a 7-0 record with a 1.59 ERA, helping the Hoppers win the first half of the Northern Division to clinch a spot in the SAL playoffs.
Curiously, and unfortunately, Greensboro fans only got a glimpse of Fernandez. Because of a quirk in the way the pitching rotation lined up, he started 10 games on the road and only four in NewBridge Bank Park. Three of those resulted in no decisions. But the one game he did win here was an example of his fortitude.
As the first half drew to a close, the Hoppers needed one win to clinch the playoff spot. Fernandez’s turn in the rotation came up, and manager David Berg couldn’t have been happier.
“There’s nobody I’d rather have out there,” Berg told me. “There’s not a better competitor … and he’s not afraid of anything.”
Fernandez didn’t have his best stuff that night against Charleston, being touched for eight hits and four runs. He was tagged for three runs in the sixth inning, then returned to pitch shutout innings in the seventh and eighth. He struck out all three hitters in the eighth, leaving the game with the Hoppers leading 5-4, which turned out to be the final score.
“This has been amazing,” he said after the game. “The fans, the people in the front office, the team. I love it. It’s been a great experience for me. It doesn’t matter about the numbers, the strikeouts and all that. It’s all about the team winning.”
As I was talking with Fernandez that night, Wayne Rosenthal, then the Marlins’ minor league pitching coordinator, quietly informed him that he was being promoted to the high Class A team in Jupiter. And that ended his stint in Greensboro. It was the right call — Fernandez went 7-1 in Jupiter with a 1.96 ERA to finish the season with a combined record of 14-1.
He was slated for Double-A the next year, but the Marlins were hit by some injuries to their pitching staff. In the discussions about how to fill the roster, it was Rosenthal who sold the idea of bringing up Fernandez, reasoning that “if they want the best, it’s him.” Putting a 20-year old pitcher on a major league roster is rare, but all Fernandez did was become the National League Rookie of the Year.
“What he’s been through in his life, anything that comes to him now is easy,” Rosenthal told me early in 2013. “Falling off the boat trying to get out of Cuba is pressure. Getting thrown in jail at 14 is pressure. Here it’s nothing, and that’s his mentality. As long as he keeps that, nothing is going to be hard for him. In his mind it’s going to be easy, whether he succeeds or fails.”
Fernandez succeeded. Although he had a setback with Tommy John surgery, he recovered and threw as well as ever. I watched him whenever I could on TV — Marlins games aren’t easy to find — and when I went to spring training this year I saw him pitch twice. He threw five no-hit innings in the first game.
And now he’s gone. His statistics in the majors will always read 76 games, 38-17 record, 2.58 ERA, 589 strikeouts in 471 innings. They are an indication of his talent with the suggestion that he was going to be one of the best pitchers, maybe the very best, of his generation.
What they don’t reflect is his ebullient, even flamboyant, personality, his love of baseball and his love of life. The stats won’t tell you how the crowds in Miami spiked whenever he pitched, how he was the pride not only of the Cuban community there but also the pride of the baseball community that loved to watch the joy with which he pitched.
There’s a haunting song by the rock group Bad Company that has been running through my mind most of the day. For me, it seems to fit the fleeting life of Jose Fernandez. Here’s the chorus:
“Don’t you know that you are a shooting star, don’t you know, don’t you know
“Don’t you know that you are a shooting star
“And all the world will love you just as long, as long as you are.”
It was a short run for this shooting star, who packed more into 24 years than many do in a lifetime. I think the way I’ll remember him will be as someone who overcame enormous odds to achieve his dream, then squeezed every ounce of life out of it that he could in the time that he had. But it’s going to take some time for that to sink in.