Almost three weeks ago, I moved to Florida from New York. Living in Fort Lauderdale, a half hour drive from Miami, I am reminded often of the place I left, of the place I lived for 28 years. I sit on the balcony of the condo I moved in with my best friend and observe. The Sun Trust, Bank of America, and Sun Sentinel buildings are all in my line of vision, along with Federal Highway, a constant flow of cars and trucks, before the six lanes of Florida’s busy route forks and disappears behind the remaining scenery. There is one glaring difference; the palm trees shadowing the parking lot of CVS, Einstein Bagels, a burrito joint, and more. With the exception of the warm, temperamental weather that invites a quick rainfall almost daily, now in October, New York doesn’t seem too far away.
Coming from New York, I’m tattooed by a religion not observed or practiced in a church, instead, the holy backdrops of Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden, and MetLife Stadium (even if it is located in New Jersey). Sports are popular here as well, and I’ve taken notice to the abundance of Heat, Dolphins, Panthers, Lightning, and Marlins jerseys worn by those trudging over fading rain puddles on their bicycles. As a contributor and editor of the sports website, RotoBaller, I was eager to familiarize myself with the passionate scene here, without losing my obnoxious pride of being a New York sports fan, of course.
I had begun to follow the Miami Marlins heavily this past offseason when Don Mattingly was named the team’s new manager. Donnie Baseball was my father’s favorite player; the Yankees first baseman of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. He had a sweet mustache, thick, border-lining a handlebar, that made his upper lip disappear completely, and one of the most fluent swings we’ll ever see. He was a magician in the field, the safest of nets for errant throws and sharp liners, and saw the ball beautifully from both sides of the plate. Although, if it weren’t for the injuries he was tackled by throughout his career, who knows just how many records he could have broken. As a Jets fan for 40-plus years, my father had a knack for heartbreak through a television (that is, before Derek Jeter led a reign of dominance in the Bronx during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s). Mattingly was plagued by his surroundings, playing alongside a string of pretty bad ball clubs, and of tough luck as the Yankees went on to win the World Series the year after my father’s beloved icon retired in 1995. His love and admiration for Mattingly rubbed off on me, and I was excited to see him get another shot at glory on a Marlins team filled with growing talent and youth, even if it would now be in a different place, without that man who raised me alongside sports. Among that depth chart of possibility was Jose Fernandez.
I woke early Sunday morning to monitor the pregame coverage for this week’s football games. I flipped my laptop open, readied my phone for the incessant scrolling through Twitter, and peeled a banana. I turned the television on to ESPN, and raised the volume. That’s when the news broke.
Jose Fernandez and two others were killed in a boating accident.
The others weren’t just others, though, rather close friends of Fernandez. The three had taken the boat out late Saturday night into early Sunday morning, after Fernandez had gotten into a fight with his pregnant girlfriend, Maria Arias, and left his apartment with hopes to clear his head. The pregnancy was revealed to the world on Instagram a week prior; a black and white still frame of Arias in a bikini cradling the middle stages of her showing belly. Fernandez’s 32-foot fishing boat, Kaught Looking, collided with a jetty in Miami Beach sometime before 3:00 AM. It was later revealed that the three died on impact, and not from drowning. The Marlins canceled their game that Sunday.
The day after, as his teammates dressed with heavy hearts in all black uniforms, each wearing the number 16 stitched to their backs, a bag of balls was discovered after it surfed along the shifting tide safely to shore. The balls were signed by Fernandez, withstanding the current of the same water he defected to from Cuba nearly 10 years earlier.
With baseball inevitably rooted to his upbringing, Fernandez grew up with Aldemys Diaz, current shortstop of the St. Louis Cardinals; a distance of three houses between them on Eight Street in Santa Clara. The two future stars played on the same little league team together where Fernandez was immediately noticed by Diaz’s father and uncle for his ability to excel on a potentially bigger stage. It was their very influence that sparked the idea of Major League Baseball.
Fernandez struck out on his first three swings of defecting to the United States, one that actually led to jail time. In 2007, a 15-year-old Fernandez, with his mother and sister in tow, sadly left his grandmother behind, and attempted for a fourth time. En route to freedom, Fernandez’s mother fell from their boat. Without knowing who had fallen, Fernandez immediately dived in and saved her, before their successful, long-awaited, long-deserved defection to Tampa; a prelude to the type of heroism and fearlessness that he would later bring to the mound in Miami.
In Fernandez’s last game before his tragic accident, the hard-throwing righty hurled eight shutout innings against the Washington Nationals. He struck out 12 batters, limited Miami’s divisional rival to three hits, and didn’t walk anyone. It was an impressive stamp to an already impressive campaign; his best season in a way too short four-year career that was often put on hold because of injuries. He finished the year recording 253 strikeouts, the most in Marlins franchise history, and led the Majors with an outstanding 12.5 punch-outs per nine innings. His 16 wins and 2.56 ERA (Earned Run Average) had already earned him consideration for the CY Young award (the league’s best pitcher); a small, impactful preview of his capability on a team that had shown tremendous signs of maturation, a team that emerged and hung tight in the National League Wild Card race, a team, now facing the unbeatable opponent of irreparability, that will not try and replace Fernandez, but feed off of his immortal and posthumous memory in seasons to come. Number 16 will forever be a Marlin.
It was also Fernandez’s relationship with South Florida and his influence on the Cuban community that truly shined alongside the on-field accolades like his 2013 Rookie of The Year and 2016 All-Star honors. He worked in the community, donated to ALS charities, and offered a lot to those who clung to little. But Fernandez left his mark in a grander, more global scheme of things as well.
1,213,438 Cuban-Americans live in Florida, 6.5% of the country’s demographic, while Cubans make up 34.14% of Miami’s population. News of Cuban defection has certainly headlined the country’s growing level of media, stories like Elian Gonzalez that provided awareness to the struggles of those hoping to flee. According to The Economist, after the Cuban Revolution concluded in 1959, approximately half a million Cubans migrated to Miami. Yet, there have only been 199 Cuban players to take the field wearing an MLB uniform. The Cuban community in South Florida has not had a player to call their own since Livan Hernandez helped the, then Florida, Marlins win the World Series in 1997.
Fueled by opinions of the baseball world, the best Non-US talent might be hiding in Cuba. It leads many to believe what would have happened if a diplomatic conflict between Cuba and the United States never existed. How many more players like Jose Fernandez could have laced their cleats, gripped the seams of a baseball, and heard their names announced in front of thousands and thousands of dedicated fans? Fernandez was, is the face of the Miami Marlins, and will continue to be the face of the Cuban population, prospectively those with similar dreams of one day stepping off a boat and on to the green, fresh cut grass of a diamond. Number 16 will forever live in South Florida.
I always really enjoyed watching Fernandez play, and was hoping to see him pitch live once I moved closer to the stadium he called home. Although, he was never my favorite player, that honor went to Derek Jeter and other Yankees. I would be remiss if I admitted otherwise. But baseball has always been my favorite sport, even if I struck out in little league as often as those facing Fernandez did. It’s my favorite sport, for so many reasons. The culture and the rituals and the gum-chewing, sun-flower-seed-spitting tendencies of those proudly tipping their caps to each other. Because of New York and the Bleacher Creatures and the fans and their cry for curtain calls. Because of the Greek community, of course absent from baseball, but alive in other parts of the world that too struggle. Because of the intensity that follows after dugouts are cleared, of the familial bond we see watching teammates sticking up for one another, of managers kicking dirt and shouting at umpires in defense of their children. Because of my father and his ageless influence on my life as a sports fan.
The Marlins Organization held a press conference in the wake of Fernandez’s death. Mattingly was among the first to address the world. I sat, eagerly, at the edge of the same black couch I did when first hearing about the tragedy that would soon consume this place. In an effort to hold back his emotions, the Marlins Manager began.
“Thinking of Jose it’s gonna be thinking of that little kid. I see such a little boy in him…”
Mattingly paused, swallowed repeatedly, with his jaw and mouth twitching constantly, rubbed the palm of his hand against the point of his chin, and continued.
“…with the way he played. There’s just joy with him when he played. When he pitched, I think that’s what the guys will say too. As mad as he would make you with some of the stuff he would do, you just see that little kid that you see when…”
Mattingly paused again, struggling even more to not cry, to be strong for the rest of his Marlins family. He continued.
“…you watch kids play little league or something like that,” he said, his voice scratching against his inevitable emotions. “That’s the joy that Jose played with. The passion he felt about playing, that’s what I think about.”
He finished and dropped his head into his open hand, allowing the tears to finally escape.
I too tried my best not to cry, even in a room by myself. But I thought of my father, likely lounging on the new reclining couches my mother bought for our family room on Long Island, watching his favorite player in a different capacity than he was used to when he fell in love with his on-field style and hustle. I wondered if my father was fighting the tears as well. I thought of Fernandez’s unborn daughter and the needed push Fernandez received from someone else’s father and uncle. My father and I shared many moments together, pumping our fists, cursing at the television. Together, we witnessed the crowning of the Yankees as World Series champions five times and a Stanley Cup being hoisted by Mark Messier in 1994. Now, him still in New York, me in Fort Lauderdale, it felt like were still watching together, hearing Donnie Baseball speak about someone as if it were his own son. My understanding grew, of why my father was so fond of the retired player, now manager, crying on national television.
Jose Fernandez may not have been my favorite player. But Don Mattingly was my father’s.
Rest easy, Number 16. Your daughter will be proud, and will always have someone to watch the game with.
Photo: Getty Images