Column: Jose Fernandez Didn’t Live a Long Life, But Lived a Full One

Miami Marlins ace pitcher Jose Fernandez, one of the great young talents in the game of baseball, was killed early Sunday morning at age 24 after a boating accident off the coast of Miami Beach.

In a four-year career, Fernandez had proven himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball, going 38-17 with a 2.58 ERA in 76 starts for Miami, and was 16-8 with a 2.86 ERA in a career-high 29 starts this season.

A Bright Young Star

Fernandez was born in Santa Clara, Cuba on July 31, 1992, and grew up on the same street as St. Louis Cardinals infielder Aledmys Diaz.  The pair grew up playing the game together, and Fernandez cited Diaz’s family as a strong influence on his baseball career.

After Fernandez’s stepfather successfully defected from Cuba to Tampa, Fla. in 2005, Fernandez and his mother and sister unsuccessfully attempted to defect three times.  Finally, in 2007, the trio successfully emigrated from Cuba to Tampa, through Mexico and Texas, although Fernandez’s mother fell off the ship during the trip, requiring Fernandez to jump in the water to save her life.

Fernandez was selected 14th overall by the Marlins in the 2011 MLB Draft, and quickly rose through the Marlins’ minor league system, including throwing the first six innings of a combined no-hitter in 2012 with the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Class A/South Atlantic League).

Prior to the 2013 season, Baseball America rated Fernandez the top prospect of the Marlins, and the 5th ranked prospect in all of baseball.  The team’s original plan was to keep him in the high minors to start the 2013 season, but after injuries to other starting pitchers, Fernandez made the team’s opening day roster at age 20.  After a 12-6 record and a 2.19 ERA in his rookie campaign, Fernandez was named National League Rookie of the Year, and finished third in Cy Young Award voting behind Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright.

Fernandez missed most of 2014 and the first half of 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in May of 2014.  In 19 combined starts in 2014-15, Fernandez was 10-3 with a 2.71 ERA, and on September 25, 2015, set a major league record with his 17th consecutive win at home.

Fernandez was a candidate for the NL Cy Young Award for 2016, ranking fifth in wins and ninth in ERA.  After news broke of his death, some social media users began campaigning for Fernandez to be given the Cy Young Award posthumously, as a tribute to the career he had, and would have had if not for his sudden passing.

The American Dream

Some who knew Fernandez said Sunday that he has said “You were given freedom; I had to earn mine,” and Fernandez played the game of baseball joyously, clearly appreciating the opportunities he had to play baseball professionally in the U.S. after his Cuban birth.

On April 24, 2015, while recovering from Tommy John surgery, Fernandez became a U.S. citizen.  His American pride, as a naturalized citizen, was apparent on July 3, 2016, when the Marlins and Atlanta Braves played a game at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fernandez appeared in awe and appreciation of the atmosphere and the military personnel in attendance.

Fernandez had announced last week that he and girlfriend Maria Arias were expecting their first child, adding another sad detail to this tragic story.

 

Fernandez’s passion was evident to anyone who watched any game he pitched.  A couple of times, opposing teams took exception to how Fernandez displayed his emotion (namely, the Atlanta Braves on two separate occasions), but based on the reaction of the baseball community at large, including current and former Braves players involved in those past disagreements, other players certainly appreciated how Fernandez played the game, and how much he clearly enjoyed playing the game.

Even Brian McCann, who shared words on the field with Fernandez in 2013 after he ran the bases slowly “admiring” his first career home run, was reportedly in tears in the Yankees locker room on Sunday morning when the news of Fernandez’s death was announced.  In the heat of battle, Fernandez was the opponent, but his loss shows how much affection everyone within the MLB fraternity had for the jovial pitcher.

A Big Loss For Baseball

Many within the Major League Baseball community shared their feelings on Fernandez on Twitter on Sunday:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At a Marlins press conference Sunday afternoon, Marlins manager Don Mattingly shared his thoughts on Fernandez, while team owner Jeffrey Loria released a statement.

“I see such a little boy in the way he played. Such joy. When you watch kids play Little League, that’s what I think about,” Mattingly said.

“Sadly, the brightest lights are often the ones that extinguish the fastest. Jose left us far too soon, but his memory will endure in all of us. At this difficult time, our prayers are with his mother, grandmother, family and friends,” Loria said.

The team’s game against the Atlanta Braves scheduled for Sunday afternoon was cancelled.

Longtime Sports Illustrated baseball writer Tom Verducci may have written the best description of anyone in the game on one of its darkest days in recent memory:

“The wickedness of his breaking ball was exceeded only by the wattage of his smile. His personality, not just his arm, made Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins one of baseball’s brightest stars in ascension. At 24, Fernandez not only played baseball well but also played it with elan. He mowed down hitters with an alluring combination of molten ferocity and boyish joy.”

In Fernandez’s last start on Tuesday, he held the Washington Nationals (the NL East Division champions) to no runs and three hits in eight strong innings.  While no one knew it was his final MLB appearance, his final game was an indicative representation of his formidable career.  Fernandez’s final out was Nationals 2B Daniel Murphy, a NL MVP contender, and when he returned to the dugout, Marlins hitting coach Barry Bonds jokingly kissed him on the cheek after the terrific outing.

Fernandez’s death is the fourth in 2016 by an active professional baseball player, but the first by a player on a major league roster since Oscar Taveras’ death in 2014. His death is the youngest by a former All-Star in MLB history.

While Jose Fernandez lived a life that seems much too short after his tragic death, the 24 years he did have were lived to the fullest, as he appreciated the opportunities he had, and showed with his actions how much he loved what he did, and did well, playing the game of baseball.

 

 

Jose Fernandez Career Statistics (MLB)
2013:  12-6, 2.19 ERA, 28 starts, 172.2 innings, 187 strikeouts
2014:  4-2, 2.44 ERA, 8 starts, 51.2 innings, 70 strikeouts

2015:  6-1, 2.92 ERA, 11 starts, 64.2 innings, 79 strikeouts
2016:  16-8, 2.86 ERA, 29 starts, 182.1 innings, 253 strikeouts
Career:  38-17, 2.58 ERA, 76 starts, 471.1 innings, 589 strikeouts

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3 thoughts on “Column: Jose Fernandez Didn’t Live a Long Life, But Lived a Full One

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