TAMPA — After one of Jose Fernandez’s three failed escapes from Cuba, he sat in a jail cell uncertain about the next 24 hours of his life.
After another, he was under house arrest, a handful of police officers stationed to watch his every move.
He couldn’t go to high school. He couldn’t play baseball. His friends deserted him — all at the age of 14.
“I was treated like a traitor,” said Fernandez, shaking his head. “All because I wanted to live out my dream.”
His fourth try — which went through Mexico, where his father was waiting — was successful, but not before he jumped into 8-foot gulf waves to save his mother, who had fallen overboard.
He landed at Alonso High School, a brash teenager who spoke no English. The only language connecting him to his teammates was his fire on the baseball diamond.
Three years later, Fernandez is on the verge of a dream come true. All signs point to the 6-foot-3, 225-pound right-handed pitcher with a fastball that nearly reaches triple digits being selected Monday in the first round of the Major League Baseball first-year player draft.
Baseball? When you’re Fernandez, that’s the easy part. The mound? That’s where he’s most comfortable.
“Everything I’ve been through has helped me a lot out on the field,” Fernandez said Thursday while sitting at his West Tampa kitchen table. “I’ve been through so much stuff that when I do something wrong out there, it’s not a big deal.
“Right now if they would let me, I would pitch in the pros today. I’ve been thrown a lot of stuff in my life. I have my mind strong.”
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In the spring of 2009, Fernandez was a virtual unknown. But in the final game of his sophomore season — the Class 6A state title game against Miami Columbus — he was buzzing 94 mph fastballs by hitters in the sixth inning.
“Sientate,” he would yell to batters from the mound— sit down in Spanish. His performance led Alonso to its first state title. His talent was unquestioned, but he was still raw. Fernandez had escaped Cuba but Cuba hadn’t escaped Fernandez.
“He’s like a stallion you have to hold back,” said Alonso pitching coach Pete Toledo. “Sometimes he would take off his hat when he hit a homer or he would talk back to opposing team. I’d have to tell him, 'We don’t do that here.’ But I’ve never seen a player with more fire and love of the game than Jose. And you don’t want to take that away.”
This season, Fernandez was 13-1 with a 1.35 ERA and 134 strikeouts in 93 innings. He tallied nine complete-game wins, including four shutouts. He was 5-0 in the postseason, leading Alonso to another 6A state title, throwing a complete game in the state semifinal while hitting the winning two-run homer in the seventh inning. In his prep, career he was 11-0 in the postseason and 30-3 overall.
Now there’s no more yelling. When Fernandez rears back to throw his fastball, it’s only accompanied by a cold stare.
“When he gives that stare, it’s intimidating for a hitter,” Alonso catcher Mike Fahrman said. “It’s almost scary. I’m glad I’m the one catching it instead of trying to face it.”
Fernandez has learned that sweat is sometimes more powerful than swagger. He’s worked with former Cuban national team pitching coach Orlando Chinea, who has tutored major leaguers Rolando Arroyo and Orlando Hernandez. Chinea’s training is intense. It includes medicine ball work, swim routines and even chopping down trees Paul Bunyan style.
“Before I knew him, I just thought he had the raw tools,” said Jesuit junior pitcher Lance McCullers, a 2012 top draft prospect and workout partner of Fernandez. “But now looking from inside, I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as him. His will to get better is unbelievable. We push each other and when you get to the point when you think it’s too much, he’s still pushing you.
“If you know him, he’s such an unselfish person. It’s his work ethic that’s got him to where here is. I think he’s extremely grateful for what he’s been through.”
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Fernandez nearly didn’t get to play his senior season. The Florida High School Athletic Association, the state’s governing body for prep sports, ruled that he had exhausted his four-year window to compete since he entered the ninth grade in Cuba. He needed to win a November appeal and show documentation that his arrests for fleeing Cuba prevented him from going to school.
Like most Cuban defectors, his true age is in question; Fernandez says he’s 18. But when it comes to his talents, age won’t matter to professional teams.
“Even if you were worried about age, he’s not a projection kid,” said Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America. “He’s not a raw kid. He has a good feel for what he does. Even if you think he’s older, and I’m not saying I think he is, with his size and his stuff, he’s still an attractive package. You don’t have to project him. He doesn’t have to get stronger or progress.”
Callis’ most recent projections place Fernandez as the No. 20th overall prospect — and the Rays have an outside shot of drafting him — but predicting the baseball draft is an uncertain science. Callis said Fernandez could be selected anywhere from 15th to 40th. “As far as pitchers go, there’s a clear top three,” Callis said. “And after that, he’s as good as anyone else.”
Regardless, he could command a multi-million dollar signing bonus. Fernandez has signed with USF — and given his pro prospects, the likelihood of him playing there is slim — but Fernandez hasn’t ruled it out.
“I have something very clear,” Fernandez said. “If the draft doesn’t treat me fair, I’m going to go to college. You never know what’s going to happen in the draft. I know I’m going to play after high school or after college.
“I know I’m going to get there. It might not be sooner than later, but I’m going to get there.”
Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at email@example.com