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Remembering Jose Fernandez

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The joyful Miami Marlins pitcher died Sunday in a boating accident. He was 24 years old.
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Jose Fernandez, the Miami Marlins pitcher who ranked among Major League Baseball’s best, died on Sunday in a boating accident. He was 24 years old.

A U.S. Coast Guard patrol discovered an overturned 33-foot-long boat with the bodies of Fernandez and two others early Sunday morning, the Coast Guard said in a statement.

“All of Baseball is shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez,” Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred said in a statement. “He was one of our game's great young stars who made a dramatic impact on and off the field since his debut in 2013. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, the Miami Marlins organization and all of the people he touched in his life."

A joyous right-hander who quickly became a fan favorite, Fernandez’s life story seemed destined for baseball lore. Born in Cuba in 1992, he made three failed efforts as a teenager to cross the 70-mile stretch of water separating him from Florida and freedom. The Cuban government sentenced him to a few months in the country’s notorious prisons after one of the attempts when he was 14 years old.

Finally, in 2008, the 15-year-old Fernandez sailed with other attempted defectors from Cuba to Cancun, Mexico. Under U.S. law, Cuban asylum-seekers who set foot on American soil are generally allowed to stay, no matter where they land. Fernandez, along with his mother and sister, then crossed the border into Texas a few days later. He became a U.S. citizen in 2015.

The Marlins selected Fernandez in the first round of the 2011 draft, and he played his first game with the team in 2013. On the field, he soon became one of the best pitchers currently playing the sport. USA Today has more:

Known for his ebullient personality—which could occasionally rankle opponents—and a pitch repertoire that could stagger opponents with both his fastball and a devastating curve, Fernandez was the backbone of the Marlins pitching staff, posting a 2.86 earned-run average. He struck out at least 11 batters in nine of his 29 starts this season.

In the final start of his career, Wednesday night against the Washington Nationals, Fernandez shut out the Washington Nationals over eight innings, striking out 12 in a 1-0 victory. Marlins infielder Martin Prado said Fernandez told teammates he believed it was the greatest start of his career.

In a statement, the Marlins said they were “devastated” by Fernandez’s death and that Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Braves was cancelled. Their NFL counterpart, the Miami Dolphins, will pay tribute to Fernandez before their game against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

Jose Fernandez was the most exciting pitcher in baseball

  • David SchoenfieldSweetSpot blogger

What awful, depressing news to wake up to this weekend: Jose Fernandez, dead at the age 24 after a boating accident.

Imagine the 14-year-old Fernandez, on a boat about 10 miles off the shore of Miami, the bright lights of the big city right there. Imagine the feeling -- on his third attempt to leave Cuba -- of being so close to the dream your family desires.

So imagine seeing those lights, but knowing you weren’t in America just yet. United States law stated that if defectors made it to shore, they were allowed to stay. But if the U.S. Coast Guard captured the boat in the water, the passengers were sent back to Cuba. That's what happened to Fernandez. Back in Cuba he spent time in prison, locked up next to murderers. In 2013, his rookie season, he told a reporter he didn't want to think back about the food in prison or the inmates he shared a cell with. "To them, their lives were already over," he said. "What did it matter to them if they killed you? That's just one more murder."

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The Fernandez family would make a fourth attempt. They would go to Mexico this time, a longer trip, but with fewer patrol boats. Fernandez got seasick and passed out for 24 hours. At one point, his mother fell overboard and Fernandez jumped into the water and pulled her 60 feet back into the boat. They made it. They'd end up in America.

So imagine that.

His story is an American story, with a family willing to risk their lives to get here. In high school in Tampa, Florida, he took extra English classes to learn the language. His right arm developed into something special. The Miami Marlins drafted him in the first round in 2011 and he so dominated Class A ball in 2012 that he opened 2013 with the big league club.

From his first pitch in the majors until the final one he threw Tuesday -- a 91-mph changeup to Daniel Murphy that resulted in a groundout -- he was the most exciting pitcher in the game. It's a short list of pitchers who had stuff that could match Fernandez's: the electric fastball, that slider that seemed to break into infinity, a changeup that was unfair. Who would you put on that list? Pedro Martinez, the young Kerry Wood, Randy Johnson, maybe Dwight Gooden those first couple of years, maybe Nolan Ryan. From eras long ago, Sandy Koufax or Bob Feller.

You could, I suppose, probably devise some "excitement meter" formula to measure this: Strikeout rate and batting average allowed and no-hit probability and fastball velocity and all of that. But how do you measure the infectious enthusiasm and energy that Fernandez brought to the game? His stuff may have reminded of peak Pedro, but he also had elements of Fernando Valenzuela and Mark Fidrych. You couldn't keep your eyes off him.

On Sunday, everybody talked about his smile, how he remained a big kid even as he became one of the game's best. He had that rare charisma that you can feel even through a TV screen, a personality in a sport that tries to turn everyone into a cyborg of dull professionalism. That joy initially rubbed some players the wrong way; he had a couple of flare-ups with opposing players, who maybe believed the young Cuban was a little too cocky. Did they even know his story?

In my job, I get to sit at home and watch a lot of baseball games. The nature is to focus on the best teams, the important games of the night. But I had to watch Fernandez, even if only for a few innings here and there in a game of little relevance. His first season, he may have lacked the polish of a Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner, but he was astonishing. Batters hit just .182 against him, as he turned the best hitters in the world into feeble-looking amateurs. Only four starting pitchers have ever allowed a lower average: Pedro, Luis Tiant, Ryan and Koufax. He won Rookie of the Year honors and finished third in the Cy Young voting and then spent the offseason riding his bicycle almost 600 miles a week in order to lose weight. His grandmother made it out of Cuba and got to see him pitch.

He had Tommy John surgery in his second season, and sadly, we know now that getting your elbow cut open is not a tragedy. As you would expect, he worked hard and returned 14 months later. He became an American citizen. This season, he was back to being one of the most dominant pitchers in the majors, the heart and soul of a team that hung in the wild-card race even with the injury problems of Giancarlo Stanton. His final stat line for 2016 will read 16-8, 2.86 ERA, 253 strikeouts in just 182.1 innings. In his third-to-last start, he struck out 14 Dodgers over seven scoreless innings. Then he beat the Braves. Then he beat the Nationals 1-0, striking out 12 and allowing just three hits in eight brilliant innings.

Fernandez told teammates it was the best game he ever pitched.