By Nate Flax
Before the early morning sun even had a chance to kiss the shores of South Beach, a dark cloud had been cast over far more than Miami and the sporting world. Reports of a boating accident involving a 32-foot fishing boat nicknamed Kaught Looking (spelt with a backwards K) just off the coast of Miami came in early Sunday. The vessel belonged to José Fernandez, star pitcher of the Miami Marlins, who, along two of his close friends, Eddy Rivero and Emilio Macias, died that night when their boat crashed into a jetty and landed upside down on the rocks. However, in the words of Dr. Seuss and as legendary broadcaster Vin Scully signed off his final game with “do not be sad it’s over, smile because it happened”, which is what we should all do in remembering the lives of Rivero, Macias, and Fernandez.
Fernandez, 24, attempted to escape three times from Cuba, before finally reaching the United States with his mother, and leaving his grandmother behind. He was drafted in the first round of the 2011 MLB amateur draft (14th overall) before making his début for the Marlins as a 20 year-old in 2013 when he dominated the New York Mets, striking out eight in just five innings. That year he played in an all-star that year as well as Rookie of the Year honors for the National League. Injuries would plague his next two seasons, but Fernandez would return to all-star form in 2016 as he racked up 16 wins to go along with an earned run average under 2.9, putting him in contention for a Cy Young award. However, Fernandez were far more than phenomenal numbers, as it is his person for which he will forever be remembered.
As so many involved with the game of baseball could tell you, Fernandez brought a certain joy to the clubhouse, coming to work day in and day out with the giddiness we all had when we played the game as children. In short, he made the game fun again. One need look no further than moments like a booming Giancarlo Stanton home run, where Fernandez can be found in the dugout jumping up and down, his hands flailing in the air, and a huge grin on his face, to see just how much fun he had just by coming to the ballpark.
Another moment he’ll be long remembered for is when he caught a screaming line drive off the bat of Troy Tulowitzki who looked out at Fernandez stunned asking “Did you catch that?” to which Fernandez replied through his massive smile “Yeah. Yeah, I did”. Or after his final game, which he claimed was the best he had ever pitched, when he came back to the dugout and received a massive bear hug from hitting coach and good friend, Barry Bonds.
It was not until it was too late, however, when we all got to see just how much Fernandez meant to the Marlins organization and the game of baseball. Approaching Marlins Park Monday morning, one would see a sunny day everywhere but over the stadium where one cloud poured rain on the dome in the start of an overwhelming, emotional day. The game would start with tributes and grieving from both teams for Fernandez, whose number 16 covered the stadium and the mound, before the Marlins took the field with eight players, all wearing Fernandez’s number 16, missing their pitcher. After the Mets were retired in the top half of the inning, Dee Gordon led off for Miami, taking the first pitch thrown to him from the right-handed batter’s box while wearing Fernandez’s helmet, before switching to his natural lefty side. Two pitches later, Gordon would hit a powerful home run to right for his first homer of the season. An emotional trip around the bases concluded with tears throughout the stadium and hugs from every teammate in the dugout. After the game Gordon said, “I told the boys, if y’all don’t believe in God, y’all might as well start. I ain’t ever hit a ball that far, even in BP…we had some help.” Even though the Marlins ended up losing the game that day, the entire stadium and baseball community felt the presence of Jose “Niño” Fernandez cheering on his teammates from above that day.