By: Jonathan de Marte
I will always remember receiving a phone call my senior year of high school, prior to a trip to the WWBA National Tournament in Jupiter, Florida. The coach of Marucci Elite, out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, told me that Cuban-born top prospect José Fernández, would be pitching for our team. I had done my research and found out just how special he was going to be. I was disappointed when I arrived and asked the coach which player Fernández was, and he informed me that José had decided to play for a different team last minute. I made sure to follow his journey ever since.
Flashforward five years, Richmond Spider Baseball had the opportunity to travel to and play baseball in Cuba last winter. We learned all about the unique culture, saw the remarkable sites, and bonded with Cuban baseball players on and off the diamond. Even though the language barrier made communication difficult, we were able to connect through one thing we shared a common love for: baseball. It was obvious to all of us, Cubans loved nothing more than the game of baseball. We gained an even greater appreciation for Cuban-born Major League superstars like slugger Yoenis Cespedes, flamethrower Aroldis Chapman, Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu, Jorge Soler, Alexei Ramirez, and many others. However, no Cuban has made more of an immediate impact than Miami Marlins ace, José Fernández.
Fernández tragically passed away late Sunday morning in an accident affecting not only the sports world but all in Cuba who know of José.
Reflecting back with other teammates, many of us had flashbacks of excited Cubans who were ecstatic to share their connections to professional Cuban baseball players in the United States, with José being one of the most talked about. It is impossible to understand the saddened hearts of the nation of Cuba as they have lost one of their beloved heroes, and potentially greatest pitcher of all time.
Fernández struck out 589 batters in just 471.1 innings pitched in his short, illustrious career. The superstar has the lowest ERA ever for a Cuban-born pitcher. He also has the highest strikeout percentage in a qualified season this year at 34.4%, and the greatest of all time for a starting pitcher at 31.2%. Just to put it into perspective, if Nolan Ryan struck out batters as efficiently as José Fernández, he would have had 7,043 strikeouts.
Not only was he recognized as a superstar at such a young age, but he loved every minute of his time on the field. Fernández will be remembered as one of the most passionate and emotional pitchers of all time. He will be remembered for the bright smile we all saw on television, and the clear enjoyment he displayed from his love for the game of baseball.
His story also goes beyond the baseball field. José had three unsuccessful attempts to defect from Cuba, but at age 15, he made it safely with his mother. He was determined to come to America and pursue an opportunity many Cubans only dream of. On Sunday, former MLB slugger and current Miami Marlins manager, Don Mattingly, compared José’s emotions on the mound to the “little kid from little league,” with the joy and passion he displayed in his game.
One of my favorite memories from my cross-country summer baseball trip to California came in Denver, Colorado, the night before I attended my first Rockies game. I was en route back to Richmond when I met up with my friend and former Spider teammate, Michael Small. We were heading back to the hotel when I saw a figure walking down the street whom I certainly recognized. As he got closer I told Mike, “That’s José Fernández.” I had no idea what to say as he walked by so all I could say was, “José, is that you? What are you doing in town tonight? Can we take a picture?” before he walked off with his friend. I know we did not speak for long, but I was so happy to have finally met this superstar.
It is hard to believe that such an inspirational figure who had so much love and passion for the game of baseball could be taken from us at the young age of 24. His desire to compete, impact on the game, and memories he instilled in our minds will range far from here with the Richmond Spiders baseball team, back to Cuba, and throughout the baseball community worldwide. Cubans Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig hung Fernandez’s jersey in the dugout for their games Sunday afternoon to commemorate their friend and to honor his once promising future. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Fernández and his family, the Miami Marlins, and all of Cuba, as we know how much Cubans adore their professional athletes.
José Fernández once said, “You were born into freedom, you don’t understand freedom,” giving us all something to think about as not everyone has an easy road to playing the game we all love so freely. I never thought his dominant career that I began to follow, as just a 17 year old would end so abruptly. The legacy of José will be remembered in baseball forever, from young players to the MLB, and surely the Richmond Spiders Baseball team as we reflect and remember our Cuban adventure once again. RIP José.