There may never have been a better marriage between a professional athlete and a major city like Jose Fernandez and Miami. The two were made for one another.
Jose wasn’t from Miami. He was born in Cuba, then immigrated to Tampa where he played high school ball. The dramatic story of his journey to the United States is well documented, and is just the beginning of the special link between the City of Miami and Jose. His multiple attempts to defect, the prison time he endured, and having to leave his grandmother is a story that many Cuban-Americans can relate to on a painfully personal level. In a poetic way, Jose was already a part of Miami before he even stepped foot in the city, as so many people shared in his anguish of missing loved ones from back home. He was special to Miami because he shared a rough history with thousands of Cuban-Americans who not only understood his hardship, but also loved baseball with a fierce passion.
From the moment the Marlins drafted him with the number eleven pick in the 2011 draft, many Marlins fans, myself included, knew the team had taken someone who could represent the franchise better than any player before him. As we learned about his story, he quickly became an fan favorite, as Jose’s rough past and rise to MLB made him someone to watch and root for as he rose through the ranks.
In Miami, the idea of Jose Fernandez is common. Not the baseball player, but his character and personality. When someone from “up north” thinks about Miami, words like “vibrant,” “colorful,” and “flair” are some that probably come to mind. Jose was all of those and even more to fans in South Florida. He was a piece of them. With his passing, the South Florida community has lost a small part of themselves that he represented on the baseball field. Despite his harrowing journey to South Beach, Jose looked like he was from the area. He identified with people who had never played baseball just because of what he had gone through. In the end, he was one of us.
Starting when I was 12 years old and continuing through high school, I was a student of the Paul “Cassi” Casanova hitting academy in Carol City, Florida. Cassi was an all-star catcher with the Washington Senators in 1967, and caught Phil Niekro’s no-hitter with the Atlanta Braves in 1973. Cassi’s co-instructor was Jackie Hernandez, who played shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and fielded the final out in the 1971 World Series. Both Jackie and Cassi were two of the few Cuban-born ballplayers that were able to play in the major leagues. The lessons they learned during their playing days and years after turned them into mentors for young men looking to become better ball players. During my time at their academy, I saw Juan Rivera take swings up close and learn from other former Cuban MLB players like Jorge Toca. I watched as a younger and non-established JD Martinez work on his swing, all while having no idea who he would become later in life.
All over the walls of his backyard patio were pictures, newspaper articles, and paintings of former and current MLB players. Cassi and Jackie used their academy to not only teach their students how to hit, but to share the history of the game from their perspective. Over the years, I learned that the Cuban experience is vastly different than the experiences of other Latin countries when it comes to major league baseball. For the Cuban people that made it to the States, there was usually someone back in Cuba for whom their heart ached. Family, friends, coaches, and others were splintered as people defected to the US. However, if you missed someone back in Cuba that was probably a good sign, as missing someone meant that you were fortunate enough to make it to a life with more opportunities. For many, the story ends in Cuba, but never continues on US soil.
Through Cassi and Jackie, I learned that every Cuban ballplayer here in the States didn’t have the luxury of flying home to see family, or the option to call after every game. The image seared into our minds of Jose Fernandez’s grandmother holding a radio on her roof just to listen to her grandson’s games is a perfect embodiment of the struggle of Cuban-Americans for decades. It brings a sobering idea of what many had to go through for something as simple as listening to a ball game from a land that was so close, yet so distant. Things we take for granted today meant the world to thousands of people living in the South Florida community.
When you asked Jackie and Cassi about their past, they talked about their bond to one another. In the video at the bottom of this page, Jackie says of his relationship with Cassi: “He don’t have anybody from Cuba. I don’t have anybody from Cuba.” That’s the difference. For the fans of Miami, they’ve never had a Cuban superstar they could relate to. Sure, there has been plenty of Latino superstars from other countries to play and lead the Marlins. Miguel Cabrera (Venezuela), Ivan Rodriguez (Puerto Rico), and Hanley Ramirez (Dominican Republic) are just a few. Never had they had someone who so perfectly embodied a large portion of the Marlins baseball community and Miami as a whole. In this sense, Jose was perfect.
Currently in MLB, about 25 percent of all players are Latin. A little over 10 percent of all players are Dominican. (The island holds the title as the second-largest producer of MLB players in the world, after the U.S.) The Dominican Republic has had an estimated 669 players play in the majors in its history. Cuba has only had 199. While 199 is a substantial number, especially for a small, impoverished island, it still makes one wonder: “what if?” What if the decades of diplomatic isolation hadn’t happened between the US and Cuba? How many more all-time great players would have been able to change the game over those fifty years? The fans of Miami have had to deal with these questions as well. They’ve seen superstars arrive in bunches from other countries, taking over the game with their own success. Yet Cuba may have the best non-US baseball talent in the world. It’s like owning a supermarket and stocking your shelves with dairy products from hundreds of miles away when you have a farm right next door.
The what-if question is an easy one to apply to Fernandez. We know how great he was, the impact and dominance he had on field, as well as his reputation off it. We know that we’ve lost a likely future Hall-of-Famer and undoubtedly the greatest pitcher in Marlins history. But,we’ve also lost a chance at redemption. The Cuban fans in Miami have not had a specific player break out for the Marlins since Livan Hernandez did in the 1997 World Series run. Since then, the Marlins haven’t broken into the Cuban player market to satisfy their fan base. In just the past eight years, the Marlins have passed on Aroldis Chapman, Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes, and didn’t draft the Miami-born Carlos Rodon in 2015. Jose’s breakout was the Marlins’ breakthrough. Finally, Miami had their unique superstar who would lead them to another World Series, be a part of the community, and never leave.
While the Marlins, their fan base, and MLB as a whole must do its best to move forward, the loss of Jose will never truly stop hurting. Jose was more than just a ballplayer. He was even more than the vibrant and joyful person who injected life into his team and each game. Jose was the adopted son of a city that knew the pain of his journey all too well. During games, interviews, and public team events, he didn’t seem like a closed-off professional athlete. Jose came off as someone who you could see being the class clown, or your energetic best friend. That is not something that can be easily replaced, and the Marlins shouldn’t pretend like they can. Last night, Dee Gordon led off the game by taking a pitch right-handed while impersonating Jose’s stance and load. Two pitches later, he homered in one of the most dramatic moments in recent MLB history. Yesterday’s incredible game was the first step in the franchise’s healing. The emotions ran high, the team played inspired, and we all remembered Jose for his incredible impact in such a short time. He may have only been a major leaguer for four seasons, but his legacy will last forever.
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Ronnie Socash is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him at@RJSocash.