José Fernández’s Tragic Death Comes Amidst Historic Season for Cuban Players in the MLB

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The 2016 baseball season was a milestone for Cuban peloteros, with a total of 30 Cuban-born players stepping onto the diamond in major league play – tying an MLB record that was previously set nearly 50 years ago. It should be cause for rejoicing, if only the season hadn’t closed out with the tragic death of 24-year-old pitching prodigy José Fernández this past weekend.

Like so many of his fellow Cuban ballplayers in the MLB, Fernández had overcome unthinkable obstacles in his quest to come to the United States and eventually – he hoped – become a major league pitcher. And indeed, after finally making it to the US at 15 years old, it wasn’t long before Fernández joined the Miami Marlins organization as a first-round draft pick in 2011.

From there, Fernández moved swiftly up the ranks of the minor leagues before making a rare hop from A+ League ball onto the Marlins starting roster at only 20 years old. Over the course of the 2013 season, the young right-hander methodically worked his way into the record books for a number of stats and rightfully earned himself a National League Rookie of the Year Award. In subsequent seasons, Fernández was dogged by injury but managed to set even more records in the 76 games he played before his death, including most consecutive wins at home by a single pitcher.

But beyond his preternatural baseball abilities, Fernández stood out to baseball fans and players alike for his strength of character and the unrivaled joy with which he approached the game. Such reflections were the unifying thread in a series of elegies made over the weekend that were perhaps best encapsulated by the words of Marlins general manager Don Mattingly. Choked up from emotion and holding back tears, Mattingly said of Fernández: “You just see that little kid you see when you watch kids play Little League. That’s the joy that Jose played with, and the passion he felt about playing.”

Since his death, many have highlighted the resilience he and his family showed on their three failed attempts at fleeing Cuba, which earned a teenage Fernández prison time on the island; and his heroism when, on the daring maritime journey that would ultimately bring him to the United States, his mother fell overboard during a bout of bad weather and he dove in to save her.

Then of course, there was the unconditional love and affection he showed toward his grandmother, Olga, with whom he reunited after the Marlins negotiated a two-year visa that allowed her to come over from Cuba in 2014. A highly publicized video documenting their emotional first reunion since Fernández left the island won the hearts of baseball fans all over Florida and beyond, while cementing the promising young player as an emblem for the struggles of Miami’s Cuban immigrant community.

In all, there’s no question that Fernández was poised to be one of baseball’s all-time greats, and at only 24, the young man had already begun to forge his legend both on and off the field. His passing will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the great losses to history of baseball, and more acutely, to the history of Cuban peloteros in the MLB.