Cubs manager Joe Maddon shares his memories of Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, who died in a boating accident on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016. (Paul Skrbina/Chicago Tribune)
Before Jose Fernandez ever stepped on a major league mound, he had overcome more obstacles in his teenage years alone than some have to face in a lifetime.
Now, that life has been cut short. One of the game’s best young stars and fun-loving personalities, Fernandez was killed Sunday morning in a boating accident off the coast of Miami Beach at the age of 24.
Even a day later, I still have a hard time typing those words, because there weren't many people I've ever met on or off a baseball field who were more full of life than Fernandez.
I saw Fernandez before he became a star, watching him grow at Braulio Alonso High School in Tampa, Fla., while covering the local high school baseball scene at the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) for three years. That was before he became the highest draft pick the baseball-rich city would produce in 14 years.
By now, you've likely heard about some of the hurdles Fernandez overcame, most notably his escape from Cuba, one that included three failed attempts off the island that led to jail time, expulsion from school and isolation each time he was returned to Cuba.
"I was treated like a traitor," Fernandez told me in 2011, days before the draft. "All because I wanted to live out my dream."
When Fernandez settled in the United States, it was in Tampa, but life there was hardly easy. He didn't know English when he arrived. He would tell me how classmates would tease him because he couldn't speak and mocked his hard Spanish accent when he tried to learn English. He said he frustrated his teachers because they couldn't understand him. It was his first of many battles in a strange new world.
Baseball was his refuge, and eventually he showed coaches at Alonso that he could throw a baseball really hard and hit a ball really far. Owning a mid-90s fastball can make you friends, and soon though he was shy initially, his personality started to come through. He was almost too comfortable on the diamond and a brashness emerged. He'd yell to opposing hitters, "Sientate" (sit down in Spanish), after striking them out. After homering he'd take off his helmet and yell into the opposing dugout. He had to be reined in by his coaches, but Alonso won a state title that year in Florida's largest classification.
Soon, the scouts started crowding the backstops before games he pitched. Fernandez's confidence grew. Back then, he didn't have an athletic body. He was more of a tree trunk, wide from his legs, through his hips and up, but his presence on the mound was that of a Sequoia. When Fernandez was on the mound, Alonso won. And it was easy to tell then that the sky was the limit for him.
As the attention grew, his English improved, too, so much so that the kid who wouldn't talk to reporters without a translator would immediately come to do his postgame interview after shaking hands with the opposing team. He still struggled a bit relaying what he wanted to say – his favorite saying was "That's big time" – but like his game, his communication dramatically improved over time. And by the end of his senior year, he was telling the reporters who covered him regularly, "You know I love you guys."
When you cover high school baseball, every kid has a dream of playing in the majors. Some are more realistic about it than others. Sometimes their parents inflate those dreams. But by Fernandez's senior year, there was no doubt he was something special. He was great. He was Tampa's next big hope, the next in a line of city products that included Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield, Fred McGriff, Luis Gonzalez, Tino Martinez, Tony La Russa and Lou Piniella.
Before his senior year, Fernandez participated in the Aflac All-American Game, hitting 95 mph in his inning of work. He came away with the Nick Adenhart Award, given to the player that "best exemplifies the overall spirit and character of a true Aflac All-American" and named for the former Los Angeles Angels pitcher and Maryland native who died in an automobile accident in 2009 at age 22.
The biggest obstacle Fernandez faced was gaining reinstatement for his senior year. Student athletes are only allowed four years from the time they enter ninth grade to compete, and Fernandez entered the ninth grade in Cuba and missed time after he was jailed and expelled following one of his failed escapes. But according to the FHSAA, the governing body of high school athletics in Florida, Fernandez's eligibility clock kept ticking.
If Fernandez wasn't able to play his senior season, it would have damaged his draft stock. There were already questions about his true age, as there are for many players who flee Cuba. But being measured against the top players in talent-rich Florida was an important barometer. Most important to Fernandez though was the opportunity to win another state title after losing in the state semifinals his junior season. He felt the elation of winning as a sophomore as a complementary player, but this was his opportunity to go out as a star.
So Fernandez pleaded his case to the FHSAA board. He told them about his journey, about the late-night speedboat escapes from Cuba, about fleeing his home island for a better life, about his family, how his father also tried to come to the U.S. several times and failed before arriving, about his mother and sister who came with him, and the grandmother he was forced to leave behind.
Fernandez saw it as another new opportunity. And Alonso won a second state title behind Fernandez. In his senior year, he went 13-1 with a 1.35 ERA and nine complete-game wins, including four shutouts. In the state semifinal game, he threw a complete game while hitting the winning two-run homer in the seventh inning, speeding around the bases like a 10-year-old who just hit his first home run. In his prep career, Fernandez was 11-0 in the postseason and 30-3 overall.
Few knew about his offseason workouts. One of his training partners was current Houston Astros pitcher Lance McCullers. They worked with Orlando Chinea, a former Cuban national team coach. Sometimes their workouts would end with them chopping down trees. Yes, literally taking axes and chopping down trees.
Fast forward to draft day in 2011: I was standing in Fernandez’s living room as selections were being made. He was projected to be taken in the mid-to-late first round, but when the Marlins' pick came up at 14 and his name was announced, the room erupted. The Marlins hadn’t contacted him in four days prior to the draft. But it was a perfect fit, especially since Miami was on the verge of opening a new ballpark in Little Havana. It wasn’t long before a celebration ensued, with friends and family members jumping into the swimming pool in the backyard.
As for Fernandez, he wanted to start his pro career the next day. “I would pitch tomorrow,” he said that night. He received a $2 million signing bonus, but there’s no doubt he would have played for a Tic Tac.
Still, Fernandez never took baseball for granted. I remember asking him after one game why his uniform pants were always so dirty. When he pitched, he would constantly reach down for the mound dirt, rubbing it off on his pants. They were filthy. He took the question like I was giving him a badge of honor, saying that's how he always learned how to play the game, that if your uniform wasn't dirty, you weren't playing hard enough. Then he talked about how much better the Alonso uniforms – high school uniforms are often reused every year – were compared with anything he wore in Cuba.
Those were the conversations I'll remember and cherish the most. I've covered baseball at all different levels. And when you come across professional athletes, they allow you to see what they want. At the high school level, there's less filter. It's more authentic. Most of them still have big league dreams, but they're still playing for the love of the game.
So I was glad I had the opportunity to see Jose Fernandez grow up those three years in Tampa, and I was glad to see he remained the same exuberant kid who loved baseball even as he became one of the game's brightest young stars. From the dirt fields of Santa Clara, Cuba, to the high school fields of Tampa to the bright lights of Marlins Park, what you saw from Fernandez was exactly what you got.
Last night, I looked back on some highlights from Fernandez's final start, a dominant scoreless, eight-inning, 12-strikeout performance against the Washington Nationals in Miami. His mother was in the crowd cheering.
After he got the final out in the eighth, he swayed back to the dugout. It wasn't as prominent, but there was still a little dirt on those uniform pants.