Jose Fernandez: The Best Untold Story in BaseballWritten by Taylor Hood
For many, there are two Cubas. The first is a mythical place (at least in the American mind) full of fiery women and passionate men. A place with just the right amount of 1950’s kitsch, where the drinks are frozen and the music thumps with soul. The crystal beaches and the dense forest offer adventure and mystery. The people are bursting with culture and love for their homeland.
But there is another Cuba. This other Cuba isn’t bright, it isn’t sunny and the people languish in cultural starvation. The shining hope of Castro’s revolution revealed to be a cancerous plague on the jewel of the Caribbean. This is the Cuba that imprisoned Renaldo Arenas, one of the world’s great modern poets; the Cuba that banned boxing and homosexuality all in one breath. In this light, the 1950’s Chevy’s that line the streets of Havana take on a much different feel, that of a nation trapped in the past, unable to find a footing in the modern world. This is a Cuba that even Kennedy did not envision, where the never ending revolution is stuck in an endless loop, the last bitter remnants of the Cold War.
This was the Cuba that Jose Fernandez fled. On the night of March 20th, 2008, Jose pushed off of the white sandy beach and turned to watch the silhouette of his beloved country as it faded into the dark horizon. The oversized Caribbean moon beat down. Jose held his mother and sister tightly in his arms as they wept and said their final goodbyes to Cuba.
This was the fourth time that Jose and his family would attempt the refugee’s journey. After spending the better part of the last year in prison for attempting to flee the country, Jose and his family hoped beyond hope that their future would be brighter in the waters ahead.
The journey from Cuba to America (or Mexico, in many cases) is a harrowing ordeal that tests the line between life and death. The rafts are often little more than thatched together jugs and the tide is all that carries you to your destination. At 15 years old, Jose was forced to confront dangers and decisions that would crush the spirit of an ordinary boy.
Just two days before his raft touched down off the coast of Mexico, Jose was jolted awake by a large rogue wave and the sound of screaming. For almost a week, all he had heard was gentle whimpering and the soft lapping of the sea. The silence had been nearly unbearable. The hot unrelenting silence made the harsh screams all the more jarring. Instantly awake, Jose scrambled shakily to his feet, assessing the situation. He was not a hero or a solider, but his endless hours spent on the baseball diamond, practicing with his team, gave him a sharp talent for quick assessment; an attribute of leadership not easily come by. As team captain, and the sports hero of his small community, leadership was a mantle that Jose had always worn, and it fit him well.
The screaming was coming from his sister, who pointed desperately at the water. Jose squinted and stared at the foaming black water. In the clear tropical starlight, he could clearly make out the form of arms, flailing frantically in the sea. A head peaked out, dragging gasping, drowning breaths along with mouthfuls of salty water. Without another thought, Jose dove in to save the drowning person. In the warm shark infested water, in the middle of nowhere, without a raft, without a life jacket, weighed down by panic and a half dead refugee, Jose must have felt very alone. It wasn’t until strong arms had pulled him back on board that he realized that the life he had just saved was his mothers. She gagged, coughed and vomited seawater for the next hour but lived. Her life truly owed to her incredible son. Jose added hero to his resume of Cuban, refugee, ball player.
Once in Mexico, the Fernandez family caught a bus to the border and managed to cross safely. Next, they made their way along the Gulf Coast and down the Florida peninsula to the American hub of Cuban culture, the city of Miami. It wasn’t long before Jose was once again pursuing his passion: baseball. In an amazing stroke of fate, Jose’s 92 mph fastball caught the eye of local scouts (as hungry as the Caribbean sharks for young Cuban talent).
Today, Jose Fernandez is a starting pitcher for the Class A Jupiter Hammerheads and was a first round pick in the MLB Draft. The hero who dove fearlessly into the Caribbean that night was taken by his adoptive Hometown team, the Miami Marlins.
He stands at an imposing 6’3” and his soft spoken manner does little to mask his intensity.On the mound, Fernandez is a powerful opponent. He has three solid pitches, including a four-seam fastball that has been clocked at 97mph. He has dominated low-A ball (14 starts with a 1.59 ERA and a .87 WHIP including 99 strikeouts in 79 innings…for you non-fans, those numbers are on the high end of amazing) and is considered possibly the best pitching prospect in the Marlins system since Josh Beckett.
Off the mound, he is humble but not falsely modest. When asked about the journey by raft, he explains in a kind of sad matter-of-fact way, “When you come in that boat, it’s hard. You have to be a man. You have to make some big decisions that a lot of kids 14, 15, 16 years old don’t make. So I made that decision when I saw somebody fall in. I didn’t even know it was my mom.”
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Jose Fernandez story is the fact that nobody has ever heard of him. The story of the Cuban refugee who rises to baseball glory is not uncommon, but Jose has a tale of true heroism and yet the national spotlight continues to ignore him. I suppose the idea of a successful immigrant is a hot button issue and many media outlet are hesitant to take a risk on an immigrant’s story, especially considering that the high rate of failure in baseball may make the risk unnecessary. But really, the reason that nobody outside of Miami and the most ardent of baseball circles is talking about Fernandez is that we are currently in a thick human interest story hangover.
The Olympics are now, finally, thankfully, finished. As America’s heroes come home to cheers in the streets and we are treated to three more months of “amazing” stories of athletes working hard to rise from the meat of the middle class and achieve Olympic glory, I ask that you think of Jose Fernandez diving into that water. The next time you hear about the “dedication” it takes and the “effort to win” and the “heart of a champion”, the next time Michael Phelps smiles at you from behind his Subway sandwich or pretty little Gabby Douglas flashes that priceless grin on the Today Show, think of that dangerous and mysterious Caribbean water and consider the meaning of true courage.
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