José Fernández: The glory and tragedy of a Cuban-American star

A boating accident in Miami has cut short the dreams of the Marlins player at the height of his success

Homage to José Fernández at a Red Sox-Yankees game.
Homage to José Fernández at a Red Sox-Yankees game.AFP
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Gloria y tragedia del ídolo balsero

Thanks to a tragic twist of fate, the story of José Fernández will forever live at sea. The Miami Marlins pitcher left Cuba on a boat when he was 15 years old, and, early on Sunday morning, aged just 24, he lost his life after a speedboat he was traveling in hit rocks off Miami Beach.

Fernández, the king of Miami baseball, was the Cuban version of the American Dream. He was a small-town boy born in Santa Clara who grew up in poverty. “I never had anything, I sold tomatoes, garlic and onions,” he once explained. Fernández finally reached the United States after his third attempt to leave Cuba in a raft. A Cuban coach discovered him in Tampa, Florida, and worked his right arm until it became a cannon that could launch a fastball at 150 kilometers per hour.

Fernández finally reached the United States after his third attempt to leave Cuba in a raft

When he died, Fernández was making nearly $3 million a year. The talented player was tipped to become one of the legendary pitchers of the Big Leagues. Fernández was also expecting a son. “When it was his turn to pitch, Little Havana turned into a party,” writes Jorge Ebro, a sports reporter at the Miami Herald. Days before the accident, he played brilliantly against the Washington Nationals and told his teammates it was the best game of his career.

There was no storm on Sunday night. The sea was calm. No one knows why the motorboat crashed into rocks near Miami Beach. The Coast Guard found the overturned boat at 3am. They also discovered the bodies of Fernández, and two friends, Emilio Macías, the 27-year-old son of a police officer who worked in banking, and 25-year-old Eduardo Rivero, who worked in sales at a cruise line company. Rivero, known to friends as “Eddy Green Eyes,” was an amateur boxer.

Authorities say boating at night on Miami’s coast is dangerous due to the low light conditions, with even the glow from a cellphone impairing vision,The New York Times reported. What’s more, the US daily adds, Florida is the American state with the highest number of boating accidents. Other reports say that the Marlins pitcher was at a bar that night. Toxicology results will reveal whether alcohol was a factor in the accident.

The boat at the scene of the accident.
The boat at the scene of the accident.AP

Fernández was a man of few words and yet charismatic. He was always smiling and openly shared the story of his boat-hopping days trying to get to the United States. “We tried it three times. They caught us once in Cuba and another time they turned us around 10 miles from Miami, but we did not give up.” He made it the third time in 2008. Fernández said he had to jump in the water to rescue his drowning mother before they reached the coast of Mexico. Then they traveled north to the United States, carrying with them the pain of having left behind his grandmother, “a baseball freak,” who taught him how to put a glove on and catch a ball.

Marlins executives saw that their prodigy was missing his grandmother and they arranged for her to come to the United States. Throw in a little showbiz, and life and entertainment came together in a moving interview during which Doña Olga surprised her grandson on camera. As they hugged, the overwhelmed baseball player kept mixing his English and Spanish while his proud abuela repeated: “You look wonderful, papi, wonderful.”

Her grandson wowed fans with memorable moments like when he snared a fastball from Troy Tulowitzki. Marlins’ number 16 snatched the ball almost without moving his body. He stretched out his arm like someone picking an apple from a tree. And an incredulous Tulowitzki asked: “Did you catch that?!”

On Wednesday, Miami will hold a funeral procession for Fernández. The procession will march from Little Havana to Ermita de la Caridad. The event will be the symbolic end of a tragic episode that has left the Cuban community in shock. It is perhaps the worst rejoinder to that poetic question Fernández posted on his Twitter profile in 2015: “If you were given a book with the story of your life, would you read the end?”

English version by Dyane Jean François.

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