Baseball

Diamond Digest: Paying tribute to Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez

Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jose Fernandez gestures to the stands after the Marlins defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in a baseball game Friday, Sept. 9, 2016, in Miami. Fernandez, the Marlins’ ace right-hander who escaped Cuba to become one of baseball’s brightest stars, was killed in a boating accident early Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016. He was 24.
Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jose Fernandez gestures to the stands after the Marlins defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in a baseball game Friday, Sept. 9, 2016, in Miami. Fernandez, the Marlins’ ace right-hander who escaped Cuba to become one of baseball’s brightest stars, was killed in a boating accident early Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016. He was 24. The Associated Press

The Diamond Digest, The Bee’s look at five interesting stories in the week in baseball, fades to black this week. Instead, it will pay tribute to Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, who was killed in a boating accident early Sunday morning. Fernandez was 24 years old.

Here’s what some writers had to say.

Craig Davis, Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

The death of Jose Fernandez was much more than the loss of one of the brightest young stars in baseball.

Perhaps no athlete has ever been more representative of the South Florida experience than the Marlins’ star pitcher who made four attempts to defect from Cuba before successfully reaching the United States by boat along with his month when he was 15.

The first three times Fernandez was turned back and jailed on the charge of being a traitor to Fidel Castro. On the fourth attempt he jumped into the water during the night to save someone who had fallen overboard, unaware that it was his mother that he was saving.

“He represented freedom in a way that most no one here can understand,” Marlins president David Samson said Sunday. “He always would tell me that: ‘You were born into freedom, you don’t understand freedom really.’

“For all those fans, what Jose would want, in my opinion, is for everybody who loved him to just make sure you always remember him and remember what he stood for and to tell the stories to your kids and your grandkids about what it is to fight for freedom.”

Fernandez’s story in baseball is dramatic enough, how he came to the Marlins as a first-round draft choice in 2011 and made the jump from Class A as a 20-year-old.

Fernandez went on to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2013. He posted a 12-6 record with a 2.19 ERA on a Marlins team that lost 100 games that season.

But while his achievements in baseball were impressive, his proudest moment may have been in April 2015 when he was attained his U.S. citizenship.

“It was a dream. It was really important to me and my family. I appreciate this amazing country and I respect it,” Fernandez said that day. “I think it’s an honor to be an American citizen.”

Angel Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times

Jose Fernandez’s death in a boating accident off the shores of Miami is uniquely painful for Cubans on both sides of the Caribbean because we know the difficulty of leaving the island of your birth, the harrowing ordeal of finding safe passage, and the bumpy road to assimilation.

And when we finally make it, no matter if you are a Major League pitcher or an electrician like my father, it should endure. It shouldn’t end so soon.

That is what makes his death so hard for Cubans to deal with. There was still so much that he had to give. There was still so much joy he was meant to provide us. He had so many years left of making us feel pride in his accomplishments. Of being mentioned in the same breath as Luis Tiant, Tony Perez and Minnie Minoso and other Cuban baseball greats.

I never knew Jose Fernandez. I never saw him pitch in person. But he was part of many Cubans’ extended family. It felt like he was that successful, talented cousin that would show up at your Nochebuena gathering with great stories and a bigger smile.

You felt like you had shared your lechon with him and rolled your eyes together when the older generation would start talking politics and the good old days.

After news of his death broke Sunday morning, I exchanged text messages with a friend of mine who had covered Fernandez and had spent time with his family. He confirmed what many of us had seen on our social media feeds and television screens.

“He was what you thought he was. Almost too good to be true,” a friend wrote.

Que Dios te bendiga, Jose, y que en paz descanses. Te vamos a extrañar. (God Bless you, Jose, and rest in peace. We will miss you.)

Tyler Kepner, New York Times

Joze Fernandez could rankle opponents. When he hit his first home run, against Atlanta in 2013, Fernandez lingered at the plate to admire it. After rounding the bases, he was greeted with hostility by Brian McCann, the Braves catcher. Fernandez said later he was embarrassed by how he had acted.

Yet the sport’s protocol could never shake the zest from Fernandez’s approach. He pitched in just 76 major league games, but was an animated presence in many more.

“When he was in the dugout,” the Mets’ Jacob deGrom said, “you’d look over there and he’d be rooting on his team more than anybody you’d probably ever seen.”

Fernandez stood as something of a cultural bridge in baseball, challenging its staid behavioral norms with unbridled verve. His peers came to appreciate his sincerity.

“Initially, we kind of looked at it as, ‘Who’s this guy, coming in and acting like this without any time in the league?’ ” said veteran catcher A.J. Ellis of the Philadelphia Phillies.

“He breaks with the team out of camp, he’s fist-pumping and screaming, cheerleading from the dugout nonstop,” Ellis said. “But the consistency he did it with proved how genuine it was. You could see the passion and joy of playing, and you realize it’s not showing up the other team. It’s the joy of competing, the joy of him and his teammates being successful. You can’t fault anybody for that. You actually admire people for that.”

Fernandez brought ebullience to a game shaped more and more by its Latin American players. Two other Cuban defectors, Yoenis Cespedes of the Mets and Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers, affixed jerseys with Fernandez’s name and No. 16 to the walls of their dugouts Sunday.

“We Latinos enjoy the game a little differently than the Americans,” Mets catcher Rene Rivera said in Spanish. “He enjoyed the game and the Latin flavor. His joy for baseball, that’s what we’ll remember.”

Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins’ star outfielder, wrote on Instagram that he had called Fernandez “Niño” because he seemed like a boy among men – “yet those men could rarely compete with him.” Brandon McCarthy, a Dodgers pitcher, wrote on Twitter that players were jealous of Fernandez’s talent, “but deep down I think we most envied the fun he had while doing something so difficult.”

SOCIAL MEDIA REACTS

Compiled by Noel Harris

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