Abel FL Berriz
I’m not much of a baseball fan, but I made it a point to see Jose Fernandez play. He was a shooting star. A talent too good for this world; and still, too young to go away. But his light continues to shine above us, and we should be glad we were able to experience him in our lifetime.
Accidents shape our world, and history. Some people call accidents “God’s mistakes.” I believe God makes no mistakes. What appears to us as accidents are but sparkles of genius beyond our comprehension, like an artist’s masterpiece. Fernandez was one of those masterpieces. We borrowed him for a while and it was time to give him back.
Jose Fernandez started playing baseball back in his native Santa Clara, Cuba, by chance. He did not have a bat, only a dry log. He had no baseballs, except for the rocks he picked up in the field; and he had no team, playing alone, dreaming that someday he could make it to the National League. He needed a little bit of luck, and got it, even beyond his childhood dreams.
It was by luck that a friend’s father saw him play, and then convinced Fernandez’s mother to bring him to the ballpark. It was then by luck that Fernandez’s stepfather made it to the States in 2005, after attempting to defect for the thirteenth time. And it was again a lucky strike that the boat that took Fernandez and his mother landed in Mexico in 2007, after two previous attempts and a wave that almost drowned them both. It was, at last, the luckiest strike that Orlando Chinea, the Tampa-based Cuban trainer, saw something in the skinny 15-year-old Fernandez that led him to train the boy.
But luck is just a way of explaining how things happen. Jose Fernandez was born to shine, so lucky strikes were fate finding its path. Fernandez started playing in the Braulio Alonso High School Baseball Team, in Tampa, and by his senior year, was signed with the Cincinnati Reds. He pitched a 13-1 win-loss record that year, with a 2.35 earned run average, 134 strikeouts, and two no-hitter games.
He was selected by the Florida Marlins in the first round of that year’s MLB draft. Between 2011-12, he pitched for the Gulf Coast Marlins, the Jamestown Jammers, the Greensboro Grasshoppers, and the Jupiter Hammerheads. He was twice named South Atlantic League pitcher of the week. In 2012, he finished the season with a 14-1 win-loss record, a 1.75 earned run average, and 158 strikeouts in 134 innings. He was named the Marlins’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Fernandez debuted with the Miami Marlins on April 7, 2013, against the New York Mets. He exceeded rookie limits that season, becoming the seventh pitcher under 21 to record at least eight strikeouts in his Major League Baseball debut since 1916; and representing the Miami Marlins for the National League All-Star team, in which he pitched a perfect 6th inning. Also that year, he became the sixth pitcher to strike out over 13 batters in consecutive games setting the Marlins’ rookie record for most strikeouts in one game. The boy was on fire, and it was Cuban heat.
However, his talent had yet more trials to overcome. During his second season, he was diagnosed with a torn ulnar ligament in the elbow, and on May 16, 2014, had to undergo Tommy John surgery, a ligament reconstruction named after the baseball player. After recovering, Fernandez returned to the mound in September, 2015, just to set a major league record for consecutive wins at home by a single pitcher. He had to cut back the use of his fastball in order to recover from surgery, but he still had other throws in his sleeve- (his slurve averaged 80-86 miles per hour, a changeup at 85-88, and a slinker at 88-94 miles per hour.) The 2016 season saw him grow from recovery, and his secondary pitches led to the Marlins’ victory against the Atlanta Braves, in which Fernandez became the second pitcher to produce a game-winning hit. And he did it all with a smile on his face.
Yes, Fernandez appeared smiling all the time. It wasn’t a grin, or a smirk, but an expression of joy. It was a joy for life, for, aside from the struggles he endured, life was good. He had won well-deserved fame and riches, yet kept a homegrown heart, just like the Cuban country boy he always was. He was a natural, both as a player and a man. One of the most touching stories about him reveals his sentiments towards his kin, in this case, his grandma. Fernandez professed a deep love for her. The nights when he played, his 60-year-old grandma climbed to the roof of her Santa Clara house, just to listen on the radio. They didn’t broadcast Major League games in Cuba, and the roof seemed to be the best place to catch an American signal. Fernandez’s grandmother could have stared at the night sky as well; for one of those stars was shining for her boy.
Nobody imagined this star was close to burning out. But that is the thing with shooting stars; their light is so intense that it burns fast, leaving a blinding trail behind.
Jose Fernandez played for the last time on September 20, 2016. Five days later, a boating accident off Miami Beach ended his life. They say it rained over the Marlins’ stadium the day he passed away, in the last accident of his short life. That rain was God’s condolence for our tears.