TAMPA — When Jose Fernandez returned to Alonso High last week, it was hard to tell what got more attention at first, the reigning National League rookie of the year or his ride.
Fernandez, 21, the Marlins right-hander, pulled up in his white Nissan GT-R, parking it right next to the batting cages on the side of the baseball field. When Fernandez emerged, he was quickly surrounded by former teammates, coaches and friends. He signed autographs and posed for photos.
Fernandez, who led the Ravens to two state titles before getting drafted 14th overall by the Marlins in 2011, received a hero's welcome before seeing his No. 16 jersey retired by the program.
"It's something you've always got in your heart," he said. "It's amazing."
While Fernandez's rise to stardom has come as fast as his brand-new sports car, he stays grounded by often returning to this school where it all started.
When he defected from Cuba in 2008, following four harrowing attempts, Fernandez came to Alonso unable to speak English. He couldn't even order at McDonald's. Fernandez thinks back to those humble beginnings on his Sunday afternoon trips to the high school; he'll park his Nissan, walk around the athletic fields and let his mind wander.
"I talk to myself. I like to do that," Fernandez said. "To me that stuff is important, the one-on-one with me. I love it."
He has plenty to talk about after a whirlwind year in which he skipped Double A and Triple A to make a dazzling debut, turning into one of the most dominant pitchers in the National League. He was an All-Star, won rookie of the year honors and finished third in the Cy Young Award voting after going 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA.
And many believe Fernandez is just scratching the surface.
"I've always said, if I had to start a franchise and I could have anybody in baseball, for the last four years, it would have been Clayton Kershaw," ESPN analyst Rick Sutcliffe said of the Dodgers' two-time Cy Young winner. "After meeting Jose at the All-Star Game, after getting to know what an unbelievable kid he is, his great personality along with the amazing ability, he's in that conversation."
Fernandez wasn't expecting to start the season in the big leagues, but he was ready for it. After injuries to Marlins starters Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez, Fernandez got his shot. Fernandez struck out eight in five innings against the Mets in his debut and 187 total in 172 2/3 innings before the Marlins shut him down to save his arm.
Fernandez pitched like a seasoned veteran, with command of all his pitches and an exceptional delivery. He could throw breaking balls for strikes when behind in the count, carrying himself with confidence.
Fernandez's roughest start came against the Rays on May 27 in an emotionally charged homecoming to Tropicana Field, when he allowed seven runs in 3 1/3 innings. But afterward, Rays manager Joe Maddon said Fernandez might be the best pitcher he has ever seen at his age.
"That guy there, with good health, over the next three, four, five years, whatever — could be the best pitcher in the game," Maddon said. "That's it. That's how good he is."
Fernandez said it was an honor to play on the same fields as Hall of Famers. But when asked if he was surprised by anything in 2013, he said, "Not at all. Not trying to sound cocky, not trying to say, 'Oh I'm the best.' I work hard for everything that I accomplished and got a lot of luck, too. When they told me I was going to the All-Star Game I'm like, 'What? Me?' "
That experience, meeting the game's best players and retiring Dustin Pedroia, Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis in a perfect sixth inning, further emboldened Fernandez.
"I mean, I'm 20 years old, that was really special," Fernandez said. "It put a little more confidence in myself. I'm a pretty confident guy, but it helped me say, 'Okay, this is baseball.' ''
All season, his grandmother Olga Fernandez — "the love of my life" — would climb onto the roof of her home in Cuba to listen to her grandson's games on the radio. But Olga received a five-year visitation visa, stunning Fernandez in a tear-filled reunion the day before he won rookie of the year. So Olga will be in the stands in Marlins Park on opening day, when Fernandez is expected to start.
It's just one of the countless things that have changed in Fernandez's life.
"Everything," he said with a smile. "It all started here."
Alonso baseball coach Landy Faedo, in trying to sum up Fernandez's journey, put it perfectly: "It's a movie in the making."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TBTimes_JSmith.