José Fernández: The Hall of Fame Career Tragically Cut Short
Last Sunday, Miami Marlins' all-star pitcher José Fernández, along with two others, was tragically killed in a boating accident off the coast of Miami.
Aged just 24, José Fernández's career was already being subjected to talk of greatness; to talk of his legacy.
In 2013, he was named the National League rookie of the year, and three years on; he was widely considered to be one of the ten best players in Major League Baseball, and one of, if not the greatest pitchers in baseball.
However, when a boat carrying Fernandez and two of his friends crashed into a pile of rocks off Miami beach and capsized, that all changed.
Baseball had lost one of its greatest players and Miami had lost one of its greatest citizens.
Yet Fernández's legacy may have already been defined, as a case can be made that he had already established himself as the greatest Cuban pitcher of all time.
Per ESPN Stats & Information, among the 25 Cuban-born pitchers to have made at least 25 career appearances, Fernández ranks first in ERA, opponent batting average, strikeout-to-walk ratio and strikeouts per nine innings; as well as possessing the greatest win percentage among the group.
For those that aren't as familiar with baseball analytics, that's really good.
With his tragic death however, we will never get to see how great Fernández could have been. 2016 had already been widely regarded as a career-best year for the Marlins pitcher and at just 24 years of age, he was only going to get better.“When Jose’s mother fell off the boat, he didn’t know who it was. He jumped. That’s who Jose was.”
However, the numbers and his talent were just a small part of what made him such an important figure in baseball and in the wider community.
Having served three separate prison sentences for each unsuccessful attempt to defect from Cuba, Fernández, along with his mother and sister, were finally able to escape, arriving in Tampa Bay in 2008, after Fernández managed to save his drowning mother, who had fallen overboard on their way to Mexico.
It is a story that had earned Fernández legendary status within Miami, and it is a story made even more remarkable by the fact that Fernández wasn't even aware that it was his mother in the water.
As baseball analyst Eduardo Perez revealed when speaking to ESPN, “When Jose’s mother fell off the boat, he didn’t know who it was. He jumped. That’s who Jose was”.
It seems almost too cruel, that his end came so soon, so suddenly, leaving behind a mother, a grandmother - who he had only recently been re-united with (see video below) - and a girlfriend who as Fernández had proudly revealed on his Instagram last week, was expecting their first child.
That Jose Fernandez should have escaped from Cuba, saved his drowning mother, flourished here, only to meet this end, breaks the heart.— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) September 25, 2016
Both as a baseball player and simply as a representative of the Cuban community, the infectious joy with which he played the game made him one of the most beloved sports figures in the city of Miami.
In a column for the Miami Herald, ESPN personality Dan Le Batard summarised why Fernández meant so much to Miami and the Cuban community.
“Marlins management has extinguished Mom’s love for baseball one move at a time over the last two decades, but Fernandez was the only thing that brought her limping back to that ballpark to climb those stairs in her old age.”
“Such was the reach of his arm and his joy and his story. It could bring even a betrayed 72-year-old Cuban lady in for what felt like an embrace by grabbing her so firmly by the heart.”
It is a testament to Fernandez’s reach and popularity that on days when the all-star was pitching - collectively referred to within Miami as “Jose Day” - there was a noticeable spike in both attendance figures and television viewership.
Eduardo Perez echoed these sentiments, telling ESPN that “I don’t have to explain to the Latinos. He meant so much to the organization, to the city, to the Cuban community. He comes in full of life. When he did things, he didn’t do it halfway”.
How will be remembered, according to Perez? “Pura vida. Pure Life. Que desanse en paz.”