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GREENSBORO, N.C. — Two hours before a Friday night matchup with the Lexington Legends, 11 members of the Greensboro Grasshoppers are sitting in the third-base dugout, outfitted in bright orange T-shirts and black shorts, listening to their instructions for the upcoming South Atlantic All-Star Game.
There will be a five-hour bus ride to Charleston, S.C., two complimentary tickets for friends or family (but no free rooms) and a slew of activities before the game that will require them to wear slacks and collared shirts.
Seven of the eight players sit on top of the bench for the briefing. The eighth, former Alonso High star Jose Fernandez, sits in a chair opposite the rest, stretched out so his 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame isn’t crammed against anyone. Several times Fernandez, with his dark hair shaped into a Mohawk that’s longer up top, flashes a grin.
“Amazing” and “fun” are the words Fernandez, the Marlins’ 2011 first-round draft pick (No. 14 overall), uses most often to describe his time in the organization. In three months with the Marlins’ low-Class A affiliate, the Cuban native has been dominant, with all four of his pitches — fastball, curveball, slider and changeup — working consistently.
He has thrown 71 innings, leads the South Atlantic League in strikeouts (88) and ERA (1.27), and was selected as the starting pitcher for Tuesday’s all-star game. After that, he’s hoping for a promotion that will get him closer to Tampa, to high-A Jupiter.
“Oh, my God, it couldn’t be better,” said Fernandez, 19, of his time in Greensboro. “I said when I got here, I want to have my ERA under 2.00. Now I can throw all my pitches for strikes, even my changeup; man, it’s just, it’s getting easy. This league is getting a little easy for me.”
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It’s life outside the diamond that has been the tougher adjustment.
“Out here you have to be responsible for everything,” he said. “The times when you have to be here for practice, what clothes you’ve got to wear, how you’ve got to present yourself, little things that, in high school, you don’t even think about.”
He’s not completely alone, though. About 10 minutes from the downtown ballpark, Fernandez lives with two teammates who also speak Spanish natively — Wilfredo Gimenez, a catcher from Venezuela, and Jose Urena, a pitcher from the Dominican Republic. The trio has a fourth roommate: Fernandez’s fiancee, Alejandra Baleato, who graduated in 2011 from Gaither High. The two have dated three years and first met at the movies.
“It helps so much,” Fernandez said of having Baleato nearby. “There’s days where it’s hard because it’s different, you’re away from family, so having her here is just amazing.”
Most days, Fernandez and the other Grasshoppers are at the park by noon. He’ll go to the gym, work out, run, throw, stretch, shag balls during batting practice, stretch again, shower, get dressed, pitch every fifth game, be a spectator during the others and finally leave the park around 11:45. He’ll eat dinner with Baleato, go to sleep, wake up and do it all again.
Home games, though, are preferable to traveling. Most road trips last a week and include two stops.
“The bus rides, they just kill me,” Fernandez said. “Five, six, nine, 10 hours, that’s the worst part. We get the same food every day; it’s hard to eat healthy when you travel all the time.”
The meal of choice: peanut butter sandwiches. Every day.
“When the offseason comes, you don’t ever want to see a peanut butter sandwich ever again,” he said. “Not for a long time.”
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After the all-star game meeting, Fernandez showers and puts on jeans, multi-colored Under Armour tennis shoes and a blue collared shirt before heading to his seat. The game after a starting pitcher throws he sits in the dugout, but until he starts again he sits in the stands behind home plate, taking notes on the opponent and tracking pitches with a radar gun. This night, Fernandez is in the aisle seat in Section 107, Row J, and has two other pitchers with him to do most of the work while he frequently checks his iPhone.
In his previous start, Fernandez went seven innings, allowing no runs and three hits while striking out seven and walking one. In his next start, he’ll go four innings, again allowing no runs and just one hit while striking out three. He has strung together 24 consecutive scoreless innings. Twice this season, he has been the league Pitcher of the Week, and he anchored a three-man no-hitter April 24.
“His four pitches are major-league pitches, and the way he competes on the field and the command he has for such a young kid is just really impressive,” said Blake McGinley, the Grasshoppers’ pitching coach. “If everything goes well and he stays healthy and keeps pitching like he does, maybe he can help out the big-league club next year at some point.”
Before next year comes, Fernandez will return to Tampa and spend the offseason working out with Lance McCullers — the former Jesuit ace who was drafted in this year’s supplemental first round by the Astros — current Phillies pitcher Jose Contreras and Orlando Chinea, former pitching coach for the Cuban national team.
He’ll also catch up with Alonso coach Landy Faedo, with whom he constantly exchanges text messages, and Baleato is planning to start college in Tampa in the fall. She won’t be too far away, as Fernandez will either be in Jupiter at high A or in Jacksonville with the AA team (AAA will be in New Orleans).
“I’m going to work hard at whatever league I go to and try to force them to move me,” Fernandez said. “Not talking, but my actions will speak for me.
“Hopefully I get there to the majors soon. I’m not in a rush, I don’t want to rush anything and get there when I’m not ready. I want to get there and stay in the big leagues and pitch for 12, 15 years. That’s what I want to do.”
Laura Keeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Greensboro (N.C.) News-Record