MLB Family Mourns the Loss of Jose Fernandez
Bob Toth | On 26, Sep 2016
The baseball world was stunned Sunday morning with the news that rising superstar Jose Fernandez, the 24-year-old starting pitcher for the Miami Marlins, had died in a boating accident overnight.
The news came as Major League Baseball prepared for its final week of the season during a time generally filled with excitement and celebrations, with some teams clinching divisions while others, like the Marlins, were hanging on to hopes that playoff baseball would be in their cards.
The tragic death of Fernandez was felt league-wide, from clubhouse to clubhouse, regardless of how closely individual players may have known him.
The sky appeared to be the limit for the hard-throwing right-hander, who was drafted in the first round out of high school by the then Florida Marlins in 2011, six picks after the Cleveland Indians selected shortstop Francisco Lindor and eleven picks after the Arizona Diamondbacks took current Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer third overall. Several big stars have already emerged from the draft class, and Fernandez was right at the top of that list.
His story was one of triumph. He and his mother had fled Cuba when he was a teenager. His previous three attempts to defect had been thwarted and he spent time in jail for his endeavors. The fourth time was successful, but not without tribulation – he risked his life and jumped into the water to save someone who had fallen overboard, only to discover it was his own mother who had nearly lost her life on the voyage. He left behind in Cuba the grandmother who had spent much of his life raising him; he would later be reunited with her late in his rookie season after she was able to secure a visitor visa.
He spent just one full season (plus two games in 2011) in the minors before breaking camp with the Marlins in 2013 after several injuries thinned out the Miami rotation. He proved more than capable, despite concerns that he was being rushed too quickly, making his Major League debut at the age of 20 at the beginning of a 12-6 season with a 2.19 ERA in 28 starts. He won the National League’s Rookie of the Year Award and finished an astounding third in the NL Cy Young Award voting. He also made his first All-Star team that season.
Fernandez used his status and fame to improve the lives of those in Miami, a city with a deep Cuban community. He became an instant star and a hero throughout south Florida as tales of him buying tickets for the underprivileged and donating to charity became the norm. His escape from Cuba, one that had at one point led to his imprisonment, had become a story of success and the fulfillment of the American Dream.
His star did not shine as brightly as it could have on the field, as he lost more than a year to Tommy John surgery in May of 2014. He made his triumphant return on July 2, 2015, and did it in memorable fashion by hitting a home run as the Marlins defeated the San Francisco Giants, 5-4. He was 4-2 with a 2.44 ERA in eight starts before his injury and 6-1 in eleven more with a 2.92 ERA upon his return. He was an All-Star again in 2016, going 16-8 with a 2.86 ERA in 29 starts with 253 strikeouts in 182 1/3 innings.
The Indians saw Fernandez just three weeks prior to his death, when he allowed a season-high 12 hits and matched his worst six runs this season in an 8-3 loss by the Marlins. The only other time he faced Cleveland was in his 21st start of his rookie season when he was at his usual best, allowing just three hits and a walk while striking out 14 in eight shutout innings in a win. He would match that total again the following April and would do so three more times this season.
He is not the first to pass away tragically during a Major League season and sadly will not be the last. Several young players have lost their lives in recent years at the outset of their careers.
Following an exit from the 2014 playoffs, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras, 22, died in his native Dominican Republic in a car accident. He had just 80 Major League games under his belt at the time of his death.
The same happened in the second week of April in 2009, when 22-year-old Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed by a drunk driver mere hours after he threw six innings of shutout baseball in his fourth MLB game.
Several highly visible former stars have also lost their lives during their playing days.
Former 1970 AL Rookie of the Year, 1976 AL MVP, and seven-time All-Star Thurman Munson, 32, was killed in 1979 when the plane he was piloting crashed near the Akron-Canton Airport. Hall of Famer, 1966 NL MVP, 1971 World Series MVP, and 12-time All-Star Roberto Clemente was 38 when he was killed in a plane crash famously delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua in 1972.
For Indians fans old enough to remember, Fernandez’s accident likely immediately recalled the Little Lake Nellie tragedy during Spring Training in 1993, when relievers Steve Olin and Tim Crews were killed and Bob Ojeda was severely injured in a boating accident on an off-day from camp. The talented team, coming off of a 76-86 record the season before, posted the same record while dealing with the lingering emotional effects of the horrifying events.
Fernandez’s death leaves a glaring hole in the Miami Marlins clubhouse, but more notably, it will leave an aching void in the lives and hearts of the Cuban community and the fans of not only the Marlins, but of Fernandez around the game of baseball. He had an electric personality that matched his fastball and a devastating slider that commanded the same kind of respect that he earned away from the game for the person that he was. He was everything that fans would want of an idol – a strong leader, a clubhouse presence, and the heartbeat of a franchise, someone who remembered where he came from and gave back to those who needed support, guidance, and a role model.
Our thoughts at Did The Tribe Win Last Night go out to the Marlins organization, their fans, and the family and friends of Jose Fernandez. His life has ended far too early and abruptly, but his legacy and impact on the world, specifically the Miami community, will live on forever.
Photo: Rob Foldy/Getty Images