in light of the incomprehensible loss of jose fernandez at the age of 24, i wanted to write something unrelated to football today. for those who aren’t baseball fans, or for those who didn’t know much about who jose fernandez was, i wanted share some of the stories that we’ve been remembering today in the baseball community as we struggle with the impossible task of trying to find the right words to explain how truly special he was…
jose was cuba native and made three unsuccessful attempts to defect when he was a child. after one of the attempts, despite his age, he was arrested and spent approximately a year behind bars among convicted adults - a terrifying experience he was unable to find proper words to explain in english, only describing it as: “believe me, you don’t want to know. to [his cellmates], their lives were already over. what did it matter to them if they killed me? that’s just one more murder…”
after he was released from prison, his fourth attempt to flee in 2008 was a journey he would never forget. in the darkness of the night, jose heard a splash which seemed to indicate that someone had fallen off the boat carrying him, his family, and several others aspiring to defect that night. nobody could see who exactly it was, but the instincts of a 15 year old jose pushed him to jump into the water and save the person - the stranger, based on his knowledge at the time - from drowning and being left behind. jose was able to save the individual, but it was only when he got much closer that he realized that it was his own mother who had fallen overboard - it was his mother’s life that he saved. but even before he knew it was her that had fallen, he risked his own life at only 15 to ensure the safety of another.
in the end, the defection attempt in 2008 was successful. he moved to tampa, florida and was eventually drafted by the miami marlins in the first round of the 2011 MLB draft, with the 14th overall selection. two years later, he started the season with their major league team. at the age of 20 years old, he brought a sense of overwhelming joy, pride and excitement to south florida, and especially to the latinx community in miami.
and he never took that for granted - inviting kids from the local neighborhood to spend time with him before every Sunday home game at Marlins Park during the pregame…
the only missing piece in his new life was the woman he called “the love of his life” - his grandmother, olga. his first baseball coach, one of the greatest forces in his life. olga was forced to stay in cuba for his entire rookie season. her favourite thing to do was listen to what she could of her grandson’s games, available to her only through weak radio signals. she hadn’t even seen a picture of her grandson as a marlin until a neighbor passing by had shown one to her. during an interview, jose was asked what he thought his grandmother might say to him if she was here right now. he stopped for a moment, shook his head, and said: ‘i don’t think she could ever be here…’ - to which marlins owner jeffrey loria responded by unexpectedly bringing his grandmother through the door to greet him, reuniting olga and a speechless jose after six long years. thanks to the marlins’ effort, cuban authorities had finally granted olga permission to visit florida to see her grandson.
those moments they went on to share on the field still bring tears to my eyes
a lot of you might remember jose fernandez for this moment that went viral - not only for his impressive catch after a laser beam line drive hit by troy tulowitzki, but for the reactions by both players that followed:
“did you catch that?!”
and jose flashed that smile as he walked off the mound.
“yes, i did.”
a smile he couldn’t even contain when he himself was bewildered by fellow pitcher kenta maeda:
he always recognized and celebrated the talent he saw in others
he brought joy wherever he went, whenever he could
the passion that he felt for the game and for life shone so bright, and that’s one of the greatest reasons that this tragedy has cast such a dark shadow across all those who knew, loved, played with, and watched him. he was the embodiment of why we call the major leagues “the show”.
i once saw a very blunt explanation of the tradition of using black and white photography to commemorate someone who has passed on: “colour is life, black and white is death”. this is the reason i chose to leave the three pictures above in colour; this is how i believe we should remember jose fernandez. not only as the incredibly talented florida marlin, whose brilliance on the field will remain in baseball history forever. but also for the infectious joy he carried throughout his life and illuminated all those around him with every day.
all my love and thoughts are with those experiencing a pain i could never imagine today: the fernandez family, carla mendoza and her unborn child (who jose had announced they were expecting only five days before his death), the marlins organization, and all the marlins fans.
may he rest in peace, and may his passion live on forever.