There's not a city in this country that represents the promise of the United States quite like Miami. And there wasn't a better spokesperson for that promise than Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez who died Sunday morning in a boating accident on Miami Beach. He was 24.
News of Fernandez's death swept Miami like the loss of a family member. When I woke up in the morning, the first thing I saw was my friends mourning him in a group text; we were just at a Marlins game on Friday night. My mother texted me, “We’re devastated.” As I walked up to the makeshift memorial for Fernandez at Marlins Park, people of all stripes—old, young, black, white, Latinx, Asian—were in tears.
The reason people love Fernandez as much as they do in Miami is due to his mastery of baseball. But it's also because the All Star embodied a distinctly immigrant version of American patriotism.
Famously, Fernandez tried to escape Cuba to go to the U.S. three different times before succeeding. During one attempt, he could make out the Miami skyline while on a boat with other refugees before being swept up by the Coast Guard, and sent back to Cuba, where he was imprisoned for trying to defect. On his last, successful try, the then-15-year-old saved his own mother from drowning when she was swept overboard.
Fernandez's backstory immediately made him the star of a city whose citizens saw a reflection of themselves in his life; out of the nearly 3 million people in Miami-Dade County, about a third consist of Cuban refugees and their children—people who came to this country fleeing persecution and finding refuge on nearby shores. Subsequent waves of refugees and political exiles from other parts of Latin America, including Nicaragua and Venezuela, give Miami a common narrative that's unlike any other contemporary American city. When we saw Fernandez utterly speechless upon being reunited with his grandmother in 2013, we saw our own stories of family we had to leave behind, sacrifices that we had to make to find freedom at last.
The very next day, he received Major League Baseball's Rookie of the Year honor. In the U.S., great things really can happen, we were assured. Where else can you go from inmate to defector to Rookie of the Year in just a few years' time?
“When I wake up and look around me and I know that I’m free, that’s the dream. That’s the dream that I had and that’s why I came to this country,” Fernandez said in his keynote speech after receiving U.S. citizenship last year.
“I look up and I just close my eyes and I thank to God—thank to God that I made it, and that I’m here, and that I’m free,'” he added in an interview. “This country is the best country in the world, and it’s made out of immigrants.”
The legacy that Fernandez leaves behind is nearly unheard of for a 24-year-old player who was only in his fourth season. Fernandez's rookie season “might be the best by [a] rookie pitcher,” according to the MLB. He struck out 34.3% of the 737 batters he faced in his short career, USA Today reported. Only two other pitchers in MLB history—Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez who are both legends in their own right—had higher percentages.
Fernandez was known for his youthful and positive outlook on life, as well as a love for baseball that was obvious to anyone who watched him play. While speaking to media about the tragedy on Sunday afternoon, Marlins manager Don Mattingly broke down in tears.
“Thinking of Jose it's gonna be thinking of that little kid. I see such a little boy in him … with the way he played,” said Mattingly. “There's just joy with him when he played.”
Mike Hill, Miami Marlins' president of baseball operations who had known Fernandez since the player was 19, was so overcome with emotions that he couldn't finish speaking.
Less than a week before he died, Fernandez shared news that his girlfriend was pregnant. "I'm so glad you came into my life," he wrote on Instagram. "I'm ready for where this journey is gonna take us together."
At the memorial at Marlins Park, an elderly Nicaraguan woman told me she was “destroyed” by the news; Taiwanese fans left plaques written in Mandarin; and Cuban fans shared stories about how connected Fernandez was to the local community. “Some people get big and forget about the fans, but he was always there for us,” Myrnna Garcia, a 58-year-old Puerto Rican woman said. Her son described an autographed baseball from Fernandez that he'll cherish forever.
“He is my favorite player,” A.J. Blanco, a 6-year-old wearing a Fernandez jersey, told me. Moments before, A.J. said a prayer for Fernandez.
“We’re really worried for him,” added his 8-year-old friend, Olivia Iraola.
Earlier on Sunday, Olivia's father Carlos Iraola broke the news to his family after a distraught friend called him.
“I told my wife, and she started crying, and my kids started crying. We’re devastated right now,” Iraola, originally from Cuba, told me. “This team became part of our life. I hate baseball, but this year I bought season tickets for the family. It’s three hours that helps you escape from the reality of how messed up this world is.”
“He’s a true American story,” he said. “We loved him.”
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.