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Remembering José Fernández: 1992–2016

The 24-year-old pitcher was utterly dominant and full of joy. He also seemed deeply uninterested in his own myth.

AP
AP

José Fernández was sitting on a foldout chair in a spare room just outside the Miami Marlins clubhouse one July afternoon in 2013, and for a few moments, he seemed small.

This was disorienting. I was in town to profile Fernández for Grantland, and all week I’d been struck by the sheer size of the guy — his body, his fastball, his laugh. He was 20 years old and already he owned the clubhouse. He was a rookie and already he intimidated batters across the major leagues. He did it all with a joy that could border on delirium. He dominated you and made sure you knew how fun it was. He embarrassed you and then left you laughing at your own shame. And he seemed to treat it all as some happy accident, as if he’d just stumbled into the ballpark, grabbed a white sphere, and all of a sudden become the most overpowering young pitcher in the game.

But right then, sitting in that interview room early that afternoon, Fernández folded into himself. He hadn’t really wanted to do the interview. “This is the last time I’m telling the story,” he’d said as we sat down. His voice went soft. His shoulders hunched. His eyes searched the floor.

He started talking about boats. He started talking about fear.

Fernández had defected to the United States from Cuba on a small speedboat. He’d done so at 15 years old, after three failed attempts, after spending time in jail. His last attempt, though successful, was still full of peril: He got seasick, lost consciousness for what his sister estimated was nearly 24 hours, and jumped into the sea to save his mom, who’d fallen overboard. His boat eventually took him to Mexico, where he and his group set off by land toward Texas. He remembered one day when armed men and women came onto his bus and pulled off all of the Cubans. They took money, jewelry, clothes. They carried AK-47s. Eventually, Fernández and the others were released, but in that moment, he said, “I just wanted to go back to Cuba.”

This Sunday, nearly a decade after his defection, Fernández was found dead off the coast of Miami. He’d been in a boat with friends; they’d crashed into a jetty at high speed. He likely died upon impact, officials have said. He was 24 years old.

I didn’t know Fernández. Our relationship was brief and transactional. I asked questions, he answered, we said goodbye. And so I hope I’m not overstepping bounds of familiarity when I say that I spent much of Sunday thinking about him, perhaps imbuing moments and quotations with meaning that didn’t actually exist. I found myself returning time and again to the same thought, which is this: José Fernández seemed deeply uninterested in his own myth. Others were transfixed by it. I, for at least the days I spent in South Florida, was consumed by it. His family luxuriated in it one evening in Tampa, sitting in their living room and telling me story after story of his courage and precociousness, his enthusiasm and daring at a young age.

The lore went far beyond the defection story. It was fueled in the months he spent after arriving in the United States, working out with Cuban pitching coach and fellow defector Orlando Chinea for hours each day. As detailed in the Grantland piece, they worked out on Christmas, on New Year’s Eve, Fernández flipping tires and chopping down trees while Chinea watched, often in the wee hours of the morning, usually while puffing a Montecristo cigar. The legend continued into high school, where he yelled “¡Siéntate!” — “sit down” — after strikeouts, and into the majors, where he caused a bench-clearing faux-brawl after his first big league home run. On Sunday I looked through all the notes I’d taken on Fernández. Three different people had told me he was “cocky.” Not a single one of them meant it as an insult.

In part, it seemed Fernández was bored by the story of his own life because he was so deeply thrilled by living it. On Sunday, so many videos and GIFs bounced around the internet of Fernández in the throes of joy. Here he was raising his fists to the heavens or hugging Barry Bonds. There he was delighting in his own inhuman reflexes or celebrating his return from Tommy John surgery with a home run. But like my colleague Michael Baumann, I favor the photo taken in the moments after that first major league homer. Fernández had stopped before heading to first base, looking skyward to admire his handiwork. He jogged — a little too slowly for baseball’s “code” police — around the bases. And when he reached home plate, he exchanged words with Brian McCann. Anger brewed. Benches cleared. And in the middle of all that, while the Braves and the Marlins gently pushed one another and likely forgot why they were even out there in the first place, Fernández turned away from the scrum, away from the fake machismo, looked at Marlins then–third-base coach Joe Espada, and absolutely beamed. It looked like elation mixed with bafflement, like he couldn’t believe grown men were pretending to fight, and all because he’d shown pleasure in hitting a home run. Look: Here’s the picture. You could see those teeth from outer space.

When Fernández took a break from the simple ecstasy of being alive to reflect on his own experiences, he talked about his defection and in particular, about his leap overboard to save his mother — less as acts of courage than as trauma he’d survived. Jail had been frightening. The journey across the sea was physically overwhelming. And in the moment when armed men and women had pulled him off his bus in Mexico, Fernández told me, “I didn’t want to die.”

There was one moment, though, when he spoke less of fear and anxiety than of awe. During his third attempt at defection, Fernández’s boat malfunctioned just a few miles from Miami’s shore. The engine cut off. Waves lapped against the boat’s edge. Soon the Coast Guard would arrive and they would all be taken back to Cuba, but for now he looked toward the city of distant lights. For a moment, there in the water off the coast of Miami, Fernández sat completely still.

“It was,” he said, “kind of nice.”