Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Fennelly: Jose Fernandez was brash, lovable, irreplaceable

ST. PETERSBURG — He left in the night, while most of us slept.

A light so bright. A life cut short.

You woke up and heard the news and wanted to think you'd just had a nightmare.

But, no.

Jose Fernandez, with so much out in front of him, is gone.

There are holes in hearts all over baseball, and South Florida. And Tampa Bay.

The pride of the Marlins. The pride of Tampa's Alonso High. A beacon to Cuban-Americans everywhere — and a vibrant, fun-loving shout-out to the American dream.

I long ago fell in love with the kid and his extraordinary story. It was about freedom. To live where you want and be who you are.

Jose Fernandez had made it.

The right arm belonged to one of the sensational young pitchers in baseball. The personality belonged to a shining young face of the game. The future rode with him, on that arm, on that smile.

"When I pitch, I feel like I can run through walls," Jose Fernandez once said.

Ambitious. Audacious. Infectious. Fearless. Invincible.

That was Jose, all of him.

All gone at age 24.

He was going to be a father, too, with a baby on the way.

Devastating. An unimaginable loss.

And you couldn't get it out of your head: The kid escaped Castro's Cuba after failed attempts, one of which landed him in prison. On the last attempt, Jose jumped into the choppy water to save his mother, Maritza. They made it. Jose made it. And now he dies … in a boating accident.

It's chilling. It's numbing. It's heartbreaking.

They played baseball at Tropicana Field on Sunday, Red Sox against the Rays. Tropicana Field is the first major-league stadium Fernandez saw after coming to Tampa when he was 15. He became a U.S. citizen in April 2015.

"I'm so lucky that this amazing country gave me this opportunity, that it opened my arms to me and my family," Fernandez said at the Trop last May.

A farewell ceremony for retiring Boston slugger David Ortiz had been planned for Sunday. Ortiz called it off. There had been a death in the family — the family of baseball. David Ortiz told the Rays that Jose Fernandez had been his friend.

"It's not a day to celebrate," Ortiz said after the game. "Such a young, humble, great kid. All of the good things that were going on in his life. Then this tragedy. It's unspeakable."

"Jose wasn't afraid of anything," said Michael Fahrman, who played baseball with Fernandez at Alonso. Caught him a couple of years. They won state titles together. "I remember him telling me he'd been in jail, fought to get out of Cuba. For Jose, getting to America, playing baseball, was a treat every day of his life.

"His first home run, we were playing in a summer league at the University of Tampa, and somehow he had a Cuban flag in his pocket that he managed to pull out and he waved it running around the bases. That was Jose. He loved to have fun."

"He was 10 feet tall," Alonso baseball coach Landy Faedo said. "There was something about Jose. People gravitated to him. He had that charisma."

It was no different when he reached the major leagues. Fernandez pulled people in with that smile, that playfulness. That's how he became close to Ortiz. They bantered back and forth at July's All-Star Game. Papi came to love the kid.

"The way I play the game is the same way as when I was in high school," Fernandez once said. "I love the game. I never want to lose that. That's the only way I know how to play baseball."

Jose was frisky. He chirped. A lot of people thought he was cocky. He was always himself. He was never dull. Jose Fernandez attacked life as if it were a clean-up hitter, bases loaded.

Like during what will now always be his final trip to Tropicana Field. It was May 26 and Fernandez was on his game in every way. He overpowered the Rays with 12 strikeouts. He also got into it with the Rays dugout after escaping a jam. And, best of all, Jose — being Jose — intentionally plunked a Rays mascot with a pitch while warming up in the bullpen.

"It was a little changeup that got out of my hand," Fernandez said after, mischief everywhere in that smile. "This is a game and I love to have fun."

Jose all the way. I'm smiling, even today.

"Let me tell you the type of person he was," Faedo said. "We went to the Shriners Hospital to meet the kids. And the kids were kind of shy. But Jose dove right in. He walked up to this little girl … and sat down with her. She was from Honduras. They just started talking. They exchanged phone numbers. He told me, 'Coach, we're going to stay in touch!' "

There was something about Jose.

And now he's gone, fixed in hearts and minds, forever young and joyful.

At Tropicana Field, before the national anthem, there was a tribute to Jose Fernandez. The Rays and Red Sox stood on the top steps of their dugouts. David Ortiz wiped his eyes. A teammate patted his back. Then they went and played the game Jose loved.

 
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