On Sunday morning, the baseball community was shaken by the news that one of the best and brightest talents in the game had passed away at just 24 years old. José Fernandez was widely considered one of the best pitchers in baseball. In a year that has seen the highest league average ERA since 2009 and more pitchers used over the course of the season than any other season before, Fernandez excelled.
He lead all Major League pitchers in FIP and WAR, new age statistics designed to measure a player’s value while taking into account the surrounding talent of the team. He struck out more batters per innings pitched than any other player in the majors. He lost most of the 2014-2015 to Tommy John surgery, but his performance was just as electric after coming back from his injury.
His talent was indisputable; what was more valuable was the integrity, energy, and inspiration that he brought to his team, his fans, and the people around him. He was an example of the American Dream, an immigrant who defected from Cuba after three failed attempts and rose to success.
He captured the imaginations of young baseball fans everywhere — his youthful energy and competitive, yet playful demeanor caught the attention of anyone who was around him. There is a video of Fernandez swinging and missing at a well-thrown slider from Dodgers’ pitcher Kenta Maeda, and Fernandez still wore a giant grin on his face. He celebrated his own achievements but also celebrated the achievements of his teammates and fellow players.
One story that struck me in particular and one that spoke volumes to his character was told by Tigers third-baseman Casey McGehee about his son, who has cerebral palsy.
“The toughest part for me is having to tell my son what happened,” McGehee told The Detroit News. “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.”
My roommate woke up late on Sunday to news that deeply upset him. Michael Velez ’19 is a third-generation Cuban-American student who grew up in Miami as a Marlins fan. He told me that he woke up and fell into a state of shock and disbelief once the news reached him.
I asked him what he thought Fernandez meant to Miami’s Cuban community, and he told me, “I think he meant many things [to the community], for example he came as a teenager from Cuba and established himself as a very successful pitcher in the major leagues. He had a promising career ahead of him, and he was a great philanthropist and a good overall representative of the Cuban community. He showed that Cubans can overcome adversity to become successful.”
Fernandez was a role-model for Cuban youth in Miami and young baseball players in Cuba. He failed in his first three attempts to defect. During the course of his fourth attempt (at age 15), a woman fell off the boat that was en route to the United States — Fernandez jumped into the water after her, not knowing her identity.
He risked his own life to save the woman. That woman turned out to be his mother. They both successfully made it onto U.S. soil after that attempt. He had to leave his abuela — who originally fueled his passion for baseball. After practices as a young child, his abuela would help him learn how to catch.
Eventually, the Marlins helped get her out of Cuba and recorded their tearful reunion. Their time together was devastatingly cut short too fast. Fernandez was an extremely talented player with a big heart and an energy that was matched by few other athletes. He left behind his grandmother and mother, as well as his girlfriend and their unborn daughter. His loss is felt within his own family, within his community, by his teammates, and throughout the sport of baseball.