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Fernandez leaves legacy

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Sixteen years ago, a young boy was driven by a dream that only ever comes true in spirited fairy tales with happily-ever-afters. It was the kind of ambition most would deem impossible for an impoverished child living in communist Cuba, but this particular child remained digilent. After three failed attempts to escape his native country, the dream persisted. After being imprisoned for months in a Cuban prison at the tender age of 14, the dream survived. And despite all this hardship, even when his family’s boat eventually did close in on the shores of Mexico, the young man was willing to throw it all away to save his mother who had suddenly fallen overboard. He dove in the ocean without hesitation, risking his dream to save the woman who raised him.

This tenacious, selfless young man was Jose Fernandez, and his dream was to become the greatest pitcher to ever grace Major League Baseball. Nearly a decade later, that improbable goal was becoming a reality. After being drafted 14th overall in the 2011 draft by the Florida Marlins (now Miami) and raised through the minor leagues, Fernandez emphatically burst into the majors in 2013, becoming the first Cuban-born player to win the National League Rookie of the Year award. Possessing a scorching fastball and a deceptive curveball that made the world’s best hitters look silly, Fernandez was pure electricity on the mound.

Yet he never became corrupted by arrogance. His beaming smile always displayed a pure, unbridled joy that won over the most jaded of fans and bitter of opponents. The young phenom possessed the heart of a champion and the excitement of a child unhardened by a world that breeds pessimism, a rare combination that produces legends whose stories are told decades after retirement. With the highest strikeout rate in baseball and a pristine ERA this season, Fernandez seemed poised to become such an icon, a savior for a franchise that hasn’t tasted postseason play in nearly 13 years.

Tragically, however, the brightest candles always seem to burn the fastest. Early Sunday morning, Sept. 25, Jose Fernandez was killed in a boating accident just off the coast of Miami Beach, leaving behind the mother he saved, the grandmother he worshipped and a loving girlfriend who is five months pregnant with the daughter he will never meet. He was only 24 years of age.

Fernandez was a pure joy to watch, never failing to entertain with that uncanny mix of talent and enthusiasm. Beyond the field, he was an extraordinary spirit who embodied the best of humanity, acting as a symbol of inspiration for Cuban refugees and the South Florida community. He would always sign autographs before games and talk with the fans, even on days when he was starting and needed to maintain focus. Marlins fans loved him for it; attendance at home games spiked by nearly 6,000 whenever their hero was scheduled to pitch. Simply put, Jose Fernandez was the Miami Marlins. Without him, the franchise is in disarray. Far more importantly, his family, the Florida community and baseball fans alike now have a gaping hole in their hearts where his warm optimism used to reside.

Fernandez experienced more raw life in 24 years than some people encounter in a century, but in a year that has seen countless tragic celebrity deaths, Fernandez’ is particularly devastating because of all he had yet to achieve. Cy Young awards, World Series titles, a potential Hall of Fame selection and of course raising his child – all parts of a shattered future. With baseball’s postseason fast approaching, tensions run high between rival teams and their dedicated fans – the culmination of six months of emotions ready to boil over. But no matter who you support or who you root against, one certainty remains: right now, we are all Miami Marlins fans.

Rest in peace, Jose. We love you, and we miss you.

seidel1@stolaf.edu