My first glimpse of Jose Fernandez came in the summer of 2012. As I sat in my usual seats over the third base dugout at Roger Dean Stadium, I remember remarking out loud to myself, “Wow, this kid is going to be something special.” Last Thursday night, as I sat in Diamond Club and peered over my left shoulder into the dugout, watching Jose perform his usual antics, on the railing for every play, in to the game the same amount as he is on nights he pitched, the first to congratulate players when they get back to the bench on positive plays and the first one to pick his teammates up with some words of encouragement on negative ones and all the while flashing his smile, so infectious that at the sight of it you couldn’t help but laugh yourself, still so young, still so full of life, I turned to my girlfriend and said the same exact thing I had said four years before. Five days later, Jose is gone, the victim of a boating accident off Miami Beach.
The story of Jose’s early life, how he went through hell to make it to his own personal heaven, is the stuff of Hollywood movie scripts. He was born in 1992 in Santa Clara, Cuba where he lived on the same street as Cardinals’ infielder Aledmys Diaz. His love for the game of baseball was borne in him by Diaz’s father who helped coach the youth baseball teams in the area. After some coercing of Jose’s mother to allow him to play, he and Diaz became teammates on a team head coached by Diaz’s uncle and Jose’s road to the show began. Last spring training, Jose commented that if not for Diaz’s father, he would not be where he was that day, one of the game’s most intriguing young talents with a personality to match.
“I’m here because of his dad,” Fernandez said in March 2015. “I’m pretty sure that I’m a baseball player today thanks to his dad.”
But that road didn’t come without some bumps. In fact, it came with bumps, potholes and craters. Attempting to escape the oppressive Castro regime for a better life in America like so many Cuban families do, Jose and his mother and sister were unsuccessful three times, all before Jose was the age of 15. With each failed attempt, Fernandez served time in Cuban prisons where living conditions are described as subhuman, food is labeled unfit for human consumption and where receiving abuse from prison employees is far from rare. Jose and his family finally made a successful pilgrimage to America on their fourth attempt in 2007. During the voyage, Jose heard a body fall off of the flotilla carrying him, his kin and many of his countrymen. Not knowing who it was, Jose risked his own life, jumping into the Atlantic to save them. Upon pulling that person back on board their makeshift raft, it was revealed that that person was his mother. This act of heroism was the first of many for the then 15-year-old and set the tone for the brand of selflessness he would exhibit every time he pulled on his jersey whether it be in order to pitch, to come face-to-face with a fan, to help children learn to read, or to make a terminally ill patient’s wish of meeting him come true the day before she passed away.
After first reaching Mexico, the Fernandez family made its way to America where they made a brief stop in Texas before finally settling in the northern region of Florida, close to Tampa. There, Fernandez attended Braulio Alonso High School where he quickly became one of the nation’s top standout players and got his first taste of stardom while getting acclimated to baseball in North America, something his high school baseball coach Landy Faedo took some time. Speaking on a local radio show this week, Faedo recounted the moment when Jose hit his first home run. Upon doing so, he rounded the bases in such a fashion that saw him throwing his helmet and leaping up and down through the air.
“I had to tell him this is America,” Faedo said laughing. “We don’t do that here.”
Aside from confining those celebrations to the dugout, Jose didn’t listen.
Faedo also recounts a regular habit for Jose was greeting opposing players at the second base or third base bag moments after the rare occasion they doubled or tripled off of him.
“Nice hit, he would say.” Faedo remembers. “But I’m gonna strike you out next time.”
No matter if he is in the lineup or not, Fernandez’s level of gamesmanship and his love of competition has never waivered. Eight years later, Jose’s close friend and countryman Yasiel Puig says he has been in the habit of doing that same exact thing as well making other friendly quips to opposing players as recent as this season.
“I think after [Clayton] Kershaw, he was the best pitcher in the big leagues,” Puig said. “I liked to face him, we joked around a lot, had a lot of fun. Sometimes he would throw balls, I would tell him to throw strikes. The next time we play Miami, it won’t be the same.”
And that’s just who Jose is — who he was, who he always will be. Forever blissful. Forever young.
Following a high school career which saw him boasting a 28-3 record, a 1.34 ERA and a 278/34 K/BB and in which two of his three years involved a state championship, Jose was drafted by the Marlins in 2011. After a brief stint in the minor leagues during a 2012 season which saw him post a 7-0 record and a 1.59 ERA with low A Greensboro and a 7-1 record and 1.96 ERA with high A Jupiter, Jose skipped both AA and AAA and made his major league debut in 2013. After just six years in the United States and one full season in the minors, it appeared as though Jose was being rushed in favor of the Marlins saving face from that offseason’s fire sale. Jose proved that theory wrong. In 2013, he made his major league debut. That April 7, he went 5 innings, allowed one earned run and struck out eight to become the seventh player under the age of 21 with at least eight strikeouts in his MLB debut.
The 20-year-old went on that year to post a 2.19 ERA, the ninth best ERA in the league in 28 starts. His 0.979 WHIP ranked seventh in baseball, and his 2.73 FIP ranked sixth. His 187 Ks, which tied him for 14th, came by way of a slider, aptly nicknamed ‘The Defector’, which held the third best value in the league based on Fangraphs’ pitch value metrics. He generated swings on 47% of the pitches he threw, the sixth highest figure in MLB and swinging strikes 10.2% of them, the 15th highest total in the pros. Among NL pitchers, Jose led the league in K/9 (9.75) and H/9 (5.7). His ERA ranked second. Amongst rookies with at least 80 IP, Jose was in a class completely his own. His next competition ERA-wise was .8 away, K total was 17 away, and the gap to the next lowest WHIP was 2.1 points. He also held the best K/BB% of 18.9% and best WAR amongst first-year starters at 4.1. That figure placed him amongst the top ten all-time amongst pitchers under 21 years old. His 14 strikeout performance on August 3 that year, he set a Marlins’ rookie record, his second team record that season. The first came when Jose was named to the 2013 All-Star team, the lone Marlins’ representative and the youngest Miami representative in team history. Following the year, the accolades kept coming for Jose as he was unanimously named Rookie of the Year with 26 of the 30 first place votes. He placed third in Cy Young voting, being the only rookie to receive votes.
Jose set another “youngest ever” record on Opening Day of 2014, becoming the youngest ever Opening Day pitcher since 1986. At just 21, he went 6 IP, allowed just five hits and had a 9/0 K/BB on 94 pitches. He became the first pitcher since Bob Gibson and just the fourth pitcher in the live ball era to have such a K/BB on Opening Day. Jose went 4-2 in his first eight starts with a 2.44 ERA and a 70/13 K/BB only to have his season ended in May due to an ulnar ligament injury. He underwent Tommy John that month.
One year and a few weeks later, Jose returned to the mound. Coming back from TJ, one would figure his velocity would be down and his control and command would be a bit shaky. But, save one rocky start at the end of the year, Jose was as phenomenal as ever. He responded to skeptics by throwing his hardest heat to date, an average of 95.9 MPH and compiled 5.64 K/BB.
He rode that momentum into this season where, in 29 starts, despite some struggles on the road, he owns MLB’s best K/9 (12.5), it’s 10th best K/BB (4.6), it’s second best FIP (2.30), eighth best ERA (2.86), and is tied for the 15th lowest WHIP (1.12). He is once again throwing one of baseball’s best pitches, his slider, which owns a value of 24.4 (again based off of Fangraph’s pitch value projections). He is generating swings and misses at a career high 14.2%, a mark which ties him at second most in the league. The lowly rate of 69% at which hitters make contact with his pitches is the very best in all of baseball, which, proves just how great Jose’s stuff really is when it is on. Despite a career high BB/9% of 2.71 (which is still below league average), Jose is 16-8 in 182.1 IP this year. 19 of his 29 starts were of the quality variety. His 253 total strikeouts are another Marlins’ record. He ends his career by being in the conversation for the award given to the best pitcher in the league, the Cy Young.
In 471.1 career innings, Jose owns a 2.58 ERA on a 2.44 FIP, a 13.9 WAR, an 11.25 K/BB (589/140), and a 1.05 WHIP. For those keeping track, those numbers are the making of a legend.
Statistics aside, for me personally, the spectacle of watching Jose both on his throw days and when just observing him whenever I went out to a park he was present at, before or after games or even during games when he was watching from the dugout is what I will always remember about him. No matter the situation, this man was always a joy to watch and just a joy to be around. I can honestly say, without personally knowing this young man or even having the privilege of conversing with him save a handful of times, I was a better person when I was in the same building, in the same company of Jose Fernandez. Along with being a master on the mound, he was a master at getting people to smile along with him. Just the sight of his infectious grin was enough to get a smirk across your face, even on your worst night. As an individual who often attends baseball games as an outlet for every day life, I’m one of the best witnesses to that.
Regardless of how he performed on the mound, which happened to be at as high a level as anyone Marlins fans have ever seen, this man rounded out his game by being one of the best ambassadors to it by exhibiting nothing but pure love and pure joy for it — for everything about it. But being one of the happiest people I’ve ever observed wasn’t enough for Jose. He wanted to share that joy with others. With everything he did both on the field and off, whether it be by hanging Ks or by making those who adored him happy such as the little boy whom Jose saw crying and responded by asking him to trade autographs, he was able to accomplish that in his own spectacular way. It is for this reason that the amount of smiles that he brought to faces equaled the number of tears shed for him this week. It is for this reason so many of us who never met Jose feel like we know Jose as well as anyone. And it is for this reason that that Jose was and will always be a success, a winner, in baseball, in life, always.
“He had his own level, one that was changing the game,” Giancarlo Stanton wrote on Instagram. “Extraordinary, as a person before the player. Yet still just a kid, who’s joy lit up the stadium more than lights could.”
Where the Marlins go from here, where his family goes, where we go as fans, I honestly don’t know. It’s been nearly three full days since I first got the news and I, now, have the same reaction I did then: it just cannot be not only that he isn’t here any more but that the same waters that brought him to us have taken him away from us. Clearly, it is going to take some time to come to terms with this for all of us, friends, family and fans alike. Where we can all take solace though is in the fact that in everything Jose did from escaping Cuba for a better life, to being a good son and grandson, to perfecting his craft on the mound, to being a great teammate and friend, to being everything an athlete should be, he was successful. By never taking one hour of any day for granted and by filling each one with as much joy and happiness then projecting that unto others, he lived well beyond his years and his spirit will live on in each of us that came to know just how incredible he was forever.
Rest easy, Jose. You’re the best.