All Cubans, whether through birth or through descent, saw a piece of themselves reflected in Jose every time he toed the rubber.
Few things can water the eyes of my grandfather. He is an amicable, but hardened man. Much of his story mirrors the tales of millions of other Cuban-Americans living in the United States, who sought out the freedom that lay but ninety miles away from their dictatorial homeland. This is a man who has served jail time for actions not in line with Fidel Castro’s authoritarian government, who was never free in his 20’s, and who would never again see much of the family he had to leave behind, including his son. Life has calcified much of my grandfather’s emotions.
The death of Jose Fernandez opened a new wound in him.
Jose Fernandez was much more than a baseball player. Jose Fernandez represented the ideas all Cuban refugees were drawn to when they left the island: the ideas of success, of freedom, of potential. He seemed to be every immigrant’s tale molded into one, from the several failed attempts to escape, to the jail sentence he served as a result of his actions, to adjusting to a new language and culture once he finally arrived. He was a man playing his nation’s favorite pastime at the highest level, building upon his kingdom with every post-strikeout glare. His name, an incredibly popular name featuring a classic Hispanic nombre y apellido, became synonymous with the fiery pride that burned in the hearts of every Cuban immigrant who sought out a better life here in the United States. All Cubans, whether through birth or through descent, saw a piece of themselves reflected in Jose every time he toed the rubber. And what a show that was.
Jose Fernandez possessed a skill set many considered generational. His fastball, in the 98-100 MPH range when he would really let it fly, could zip by the quickest of bats. His changeup, his most seldom-used pitch, was nevertheless a plus offering, darting away from left-handed hitters. It ended up being the last pitch he ever threw, getting MVP-candidate Daniel Murphy to roll over to 2B, thus wrapping up an 8-inning, 0-run, 12-strikeout gem against the first-place Nationals. Then he had his slider. Oh, how he had his slider. It was a devastating, sweeping, humiliator of a pitch, that seemed to break from one batter’s box to the other. It made bats flail, knees buckle, and at bats end. It was Mariano’s cutter, or Koufax’s curveball, or Ryan’s fastball. He would have snapped it off until he got to Cooperstown. But now, it is a pitch we will never see again.
Perhaps, when this gaping wound has finally scabbed, there can be a romantic element to this tragedy. Jose Fernandez will never lose any bite on his pitches. His child-like exuberance will always show itself when he is at the plate and in the dugout. His ear-to-ear smile will forever light up even the darkest corners of a Cuban jail cell. Jose was a shooting star, far too bright to be held in one place for long. As a result of his early exit from this earth, he is forever young. He now lives in our memory, preserved as a young man about to reach the peak of his powers, and as a person who accomplished more in a short while than most do in their lifetimes.
All we can do now is thank you, Jose. I had the pleasure of meeting you just two weeks prior to your passing, at a charity ball thrown to raise money for cancer research. You did not need to come. After the long game and tough loss you had just been a part of, many celebrities like you would not have. But you came, and not just for a little while. You stayed for the entire thing, dancing and partying in the crowd with the rest of us while the band, Gente De Zona, was on stage. You took pictures and made conversation with any and all that approached you. My mother sheepishly asked if you were indeed Jose Fernandez. “Sometimes,” you replied with a wide grin. I have heard stories about you ruffling the feathers of teammates and fans alike. Your big personality, unwavering confidence, and constant motor could be a lot to manage. But not that night. That night you were just one of us. You were with your people, and we all loved you for it. I will forever cherish that memory.
So thank you, Jose. Thank you for the wins. Thank you for the laughs. But most importantly, thank you for giving us your story. Until we meet again, duérmete bien, mi hermano.