PRINCETON, New Jersey — The day is September 26, 2016. The Miami Marlins are coming back for their first game since a tragedy struck their locker room. A dear friend and star pitcher Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident the previous weekend, hitting every player on the team hard. One player, Dee Gordon, was hit especially hard being one of Fernandez’s closest friends on the team.
Gordon made sure to honor his friend in his first at-bat, taking the first pitch from Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon batting right-handed and imitating Fernandez’s batting stance. What no one expected was two pitches later, now batting in his traditional left-handed stance, Gordon would send his first home run of the season into the rightfield seats and just his sixth home run of his career up to that season. As he emotionally rounded the bases Gordon was flooding with cheers and praise from his teammates in the dugout, coaches and fans, along with hugs once he sat back down. This moment in baseball history steps away from the tragedy of Fernandez’s death and instead celebrates the life of a great player and man.
Early Life and Cuban Poverty
Jose Fernandez was born in Santa Clara, Cuba where he had struggled early and already had family wanting to search for a better life.
Cuba has unclear numbers about its poverty index and the quality of life for those who are citizens of the nation however, the estimates still do not show encouraging signs. Studies throughout the years have shown that Cuba’s poverty numbers are concerning. It is estimated that between 40% and 51% of Cubans live in poverty however, the problems go beyond just this basic stat.
Cuba is in the bottom average of per capita income at 194th sharing this spot with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Approximately 40% of housing in Cuba is in need of repair. More than a million people in the country are homeless. Hospitals have poor infrastructure, struggle with understaffing and lack efficient medical supplies. Drinking water isn’t clean and requires boiling for filtration, according to Diario de Cuba.
Many, such as Fernandez and his family try to defect from the nation, however, this proves challenging.
The journey to America from Cuba is a long and potentially dangerous one that can take multiple attempts. Fernandez’s stepfather, Ramon Jimenez, was the first in the family to defect to America after 14 attempts, eventually settling in Tampa.
Fernandez started attempting to follow in his stepfather’s path however authorities caught him and he went to jail multiple times. The charge for these attempts was for “being a traitor to Fidel Castro” and one prison sentence was said to last for several months. However on his fourth attempt, when he was just 15 years old, Jose Fernandez finally achieved his goal of escaping Cuba.
However, it wasn’t without risk. One night while he was on a boat along his journey with other defectors, someone fell overboard. On instinct, Fernandez jumped into the water in the dark of night to save the person from drowning. He would soon find out this person was his mother and they would both successfully finish the journey together, according to CBS Sports.
Baseball Career and Life in America
Once they reached American soil, Fernandez and his mother reunited with their stepfather and Fernandez would quickly become noticed in baseball.
His career started at Braulio Alonso High School and he would never look back. Two years later, he was a first-round draft pick with a $2 million signing bonus. Fernandez played just a single season in single-A minor leagues before Marlins called him up.
While his career was cut too short he still manage to be one of the most dominant pitchers in the league during his time. In his rookie year, he won the National League Rookie of the Year Award after finishing the season with a 12-6 win-loss record while having a run average of just 2.19. He also made his first of two all-star game appearances that season, his second being in his final season in 2016. He had a career ERA of 2.58 with 589 strikeouts and a wins-above-replacement rating of 14.2.
However, he was a leader in the community as well. He was a Cuban icon who put others before himself, such as helping other members of his family like his grandmother, who got to see him pitch for the first time in 2016, according to CBS Sports. He also would invite youth in the community to hang out with him before Sunday Home Games.
While Jose Fernandez’s baseball career had an unexpected end, the spirit and life of a great man who gave back to others will live on forever.
– Alex Havardansky