On Monday night, in front of the country and the world, there will be a debate, and they’re going to talk about immigration. And all I’ll be able to think about, amid the overwrought hysterics and jaded rhetoric, is Jose Fernandez. He was an immigrant. He was also the best of us, the pure, smiling embodiment of the American Dream.
He is gone now, taken early Sunday morning in a boating accident at 24 years old, far too young, though any age would’ve been too soon for Jose Fernandez, because he was that infectious, that magnetic. Small was not in his vocabulary. His fastball was the fastest, his curveball the nastiest. When he hit home runs, he admired them like the beautiful, fleeting moments they were. He was the loudest voice in the room. At first, it could be corrosive, but then you realized it was Jose, and the lilts of his never-ending observations grew charming.
There was always a duality with Fernandez, the garrulous side of this amazing baseball dream he was living counterbalancing the horror of his childhood in Cuba, where he was jailed as a teenager for trying to escape to the United States. He wasn’t angry, wasn’t bitter. The misery of Cuba taught him to appreciate the glory of America all the more.
Fernandez tried and failed to defect three times. On the fourth, when he was 15, he awoke one night to the sounds of thrashing in the water. A woman had fallen off the boat. He didn’t know who. He dove in anyway. It turned out to be Fernandez’s mom, Maritza. He swam out into the waves and told her to hold on. For an eternity, he dragged himself and his mother through crashing waves, through fatigue and the fetid taste of salt water and the ocean that wanted to take both of them, and made it back to the boat. A few days later, they were in Mexico. On April 5, 2008, they arrived in Tampa. All they wanted was a better life.
Three years later, the Florida Marlins chose him with the 14th overall pick in the 2011 draft and gave him $2 million to sign. He spent one season in the minor leagues and was so good, the Marlins jumped him straight to the majors to begin the 2013 season. And nobody could hit him. He was 20 years old, all cockiness and hubris and emotion and stuff, raw, vicious stuff, the sort that confounds and titillates and makes you feel. Baseball does that now and again, offers these moments of wonderment. Jose Fernandez did that every start. His curveball was a drug that left you craving more.
It was more than that, though – a blissful ability to take neither himself nor what he was doing too seriously. Five months into his rookie season, Fernandez gloved a line shot back up the middle from Troy Tulowitzki, who hit the ball so hard he couldn’t fathom Fernandez was quick enough to snag it. ”Did you catch that?” Tulowitzki asked, an incredulous look on his face. “Yeah,” Fernandez said, an impish grin on his.
This is the face the sport will remember. In the individual picture of Fernandez that adorns every web page and media guide, his hat is tilted low, close to his full eyebrows, and a couple teeth sneak through the gap between his lips. No, that’s not Jose. He is smiling the kind of smile that was going to leave wrinkles in his face when he grew a little older. Little tattoos of happiness.
He couldn’t constrain the full-on grin when his grandma, Olga Fernandez Romero, arrived in the U.S. in 2013 and surprised him at Marlins Park. She was his biggest fan in Cuba, his source of inspiration when he pitched, and she watched him win National League Rookie of the Year, helped nurse him back from Tommy John surgery, marveled at his ascent back to the apex of the sport this season. Fernandez struck out 253 in 182 1/3 innings. Few dominated like him. Seeing Fernandez’s name on the Cy Young results in November only will remind of what was lost on the mound.
For all his talent, all his achievement, Fernandez never lost perspective on what allowed him to thrive. He loved freedom – love the ability to say what he believed, to think what he wanted, to live without restriction. When he became an American citizen in 2015, seven years after coming to the United States, he waved a small flag and talked about how thankful he was. When he and the Marlins played at Fort Bragg Fourth of July weekend, the moment consumed him. He’d never forget Cuba. But he was a proud American.
It’s harrowing, then, to see the country Jose Fernandez loved and embodied so well keep talking about building walls, about keeping people like him out, because of fear and insecurity. Fernandez gave back far more than he ever took, and he wasn’t even here a decade.
He was young enough that in his rookie year, he still was yearning for more knowledge. He spoke perfect English but came upon the occasional word that tripped him up. One night, after he carved up the Kansas City Royals, Fernandez was watching MLB Network in the Marlins’ clubhouse. When he came on the TV, he turned the volume up. Total Jose move. He wanted to hear what they had to say.
“They always show the prodigy,” then-Marlins closer Steve Cishek said.
“Huh?” Fernandez said.
“The prodigy,” Cishek said.
“What does that mean?” Fernandez said.
“The future,” Cishek said.
The future wasn’t nearly long enough. And as much as we’re left with what could’ve been, I prefer to remember what was: a boy who became a man, a hero to his mom and so many others, a beacon, an inspiration, a joy, a reminder of how people who seem different really are the same, just looking for love and happiness and a smile that won’t ever fade.