José Fernández, more than just a star pitcher

Fans memorialize Jose Fernandez before Monday night's game against the New York Mets at Marlins Park. Angela De Rojas // Contributing Photographer
Fans memorialize Jose Fernandez before Monday night's game against the New York Mets at Marlins Park. Angela De Rojas // Contributing Photographer
Fans memorialize José Fernández before Monday night’s game against the New York Mets at Marlins Park. Angela De Rojas // Contributing Photographer

José Fernández was brilliant on the baseball diamond, but what truly made him special transcends his performance as a professional athlete.

Fernández, 24, was killed in a boating accident along with two other men early Sunday morning in Miami Beach. The overwhelming public reaction to his death demonstrates how much he meant to the Miami community and the country as a whole.

“You can’t forget that smile of his,” said Eddy Taveras, a lifelong friend of José Fernández. “Even when you were having a bad day, he would make a joke, smile at you and it would make you feel better, no matter what was going on. He was simply a legend on the field and off it.”

On the field, Fernández was dominant. He had a career ERA of 2.58, won Rookie of the Year in 2013, was a two-time all-star and was the youngest starting pitcher to ever reach 500 strikeouts. His record at home was 29-2 with an ERA of 1.49. Marlins fans were so mesmerized by his pitching that they referred to the day he started as “José Day.”

What made him stand out, believe it or not, was not his fastball, but the personal connections he made. His vibrant personality resonated both on and off the field, making him a beloved icon in the South Florida community.

Those close to Fernández have talked about how they would always see him with an infectious smile on his face, no matter where he was. Family, friends and fans knew that smile to be his trademark.

“We were brothers, family, he was one of a kind,” Taveras said. “This impacted not only my life but a lot of other people’s as well.”

The shocking news of Fernández’s death has left sports fans across the country mourning, especially in  Miami. Although he was originally from Cuba, Fernández embraced Miami as his home.

It took multiple attempts for Fernández to defect from Cuba. In his last attempt, he even had to jump into the ocean in the middle of the night to save his drowning mother. When he finally became a U.S. citizen, it was clear that he cherished it more than anything because he knew the true struggle for freedom.

Fernández’s story is similar to the stories of many Miami residents, and it truly represents the American dream.

After his death, hundreds of adoring fans gathered around Marlins Park to show their respect.

The Marlins canceled their home game against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday and painted the number 16, Fernández’s uniform number, on the pitching mound in his honor. The press conference that followed featured all the players, General Manager Don Mattingly, Marlins President David Samson and President of Baseball Operations Michael Hill. The conference was emotional, with many at a loss for words and in tears.

“We play 163 games a year with minimal days off, we spend more time with each other than we do with our own families,” first baseman Michael Morse said. “You start to build relationships and bond with each other as brothers.”

Morse had a close relationship with Fernández, like most, if not all, of the Marlins players.

“José’s personality was so genuine, and the fact that he wore his heart on his sleeve made him an easy fan favorite and a favorite in the clubhouse too,” Morse said. “He cared about his team and his teammates. You don’t find a lot of superstars that young so humble, and he was one of them.”

On Monday night, the team played against the New York Mets for the first game since Fernández’s death, and it was a game nobody would ever forget.

Before going into the arena, many fans observed a memorial made for Fernández right outside the park. There was a wall with Fernández’s jersey on it, where fans had the opportunity to write a message for him. Others left him flowers, candles, T-shirts and even baseballs.

The emotions inside the building were as raw as the ones outside of it. The entire team wore Fernández’s number 16 jerseys. It was announced that it would be the last time anyone on the Marlins would ever wear that number.

The team paid tribute to Fernández in a variety of ways. There were symbols broadcast all around the park showing his name and number. There was a video tribute made for him along with a moment of silence. Players gathered around, kneeled, prayed and pointed to the sky. Some even drew “16” with their finger on the mound.

Many on the field and in the stands were in tears. Members of the Mets came over to the Marlins and embraced them at the pitching mound.

In what will be widely regarded as one of the most remarkable plays in MLB history, Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon hit the first home run of his career on the first at-bat for the team that night. He described it as the furthest hit he has ever had in his career.

Gordon made his way around the bases and was overcome with emotion as he crossed home plate, leaving the whole stadium in shock.

“Definitely a special night,” Marlins clubhouse manager Michael Díaz said. “The solo trumpet playing ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ was unforgettable. The whole game before and after had a different energy.”

The Marlins won 7-2, and after the game they all gathered once again by the mound and prayed. The fans cheered “José, José, José.” They had done it; they had won the game for him.

The players then left their caps on the mound. Mattingly even kissed the mound. They said goodbye together as a team, as a family, for the last time.

The memory of José Fernández will live on forever, especially in the Marlins organization. He was unlike anyone the world has seen before. He was so much more than just a star baseball player. There will never be another, but, as they say, legends never die.