Sunday, December 17, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Marlins players, fans honor Jose Fernandez on what would have been his night to pitch

MIAMI – It was his night to pitch.

His night to fill the strike zone with fastballs. His night to take a bite out of the Mets' Wild Card chase.

Instead, his No. 16 was painted on the back of the mound Monday, and outside Marlins Parks fans lined up under threatening skies an hour before the game to pay tribute to the fallen star.

"Jose Fernandez you're forever in our hearts," someone wrote on an orange K-card, the ones Marlins fans waved whenever Fernandez struck out a batter.

It sat among the floral bouquets and teddy bears and votive candles and baseballs and Marlins caps. There was a giant card for mourners to sign.

Fans solemnly filed by, as if Fernandez himself was lying in state.

"He's living a better life now," Luis Cruz Sr., who lives in Miami, said.

The Marlins returned to the field one day after Fernandez and two of his friends were killed in a boating accident off Miami Beach.

It was a sudden and tragic end to a life filled with promise.

Fernandez, who settled in Tampa after successfully defecting from Cuba by boat on his fourth try, was a hero to many Cubans. On the last try he rescued his mother, who had fallen overboard.

A first round draft pick by the Marlins in 2011 out of Alonso High, Fernandez was in the big leagues in 2013. He was the Rookie of the Year in 2013 and a two-time All-Star.

On Sunday, hall of fame baseball writer Peter Gammons called Fernandez the best pitcher in the game.

He had everything. An electric arm and the "it" factor to be the face of the game to a new generation of fans and Latinos of every age.

The entire Marlins team wore No. 16 jerseys with Fernandez's name on the back. No Marlin will wear that number again. The team will honor Fernandez with a patch on their sleeves beginning today and likely next year.

Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon placed Fernandez's hat and glove on the pitcher's mound before batting practice.

The pregame tribute was moving.

The eight position players in the Marlins lineup gathered around the mound as players from both teams stood outside the dugouts. Left-hander Adam Conley, who started in place of Fernandez, remained in the bullpen.

"That was Jose's mound," Conley said.

A trumpeter played "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," while images of Fernandez were shown on the video board in right-center field. Players dabbed their eyes. Fans cried.

After the national anthem, players and coaches from both teams crossed the infield for handshakes and hugs. The Marlins players gathered around the mound and knelt for a team prayer. Some players scribbled Fernadez's initials and number in the clay. They huddled as a team on the infield grass, and Marlins right fielder, the soft spoken Giancarlo Stanton, delivered an emotional talk.

The game started and Gordon, who wore a white "RIP" T-shirt during batting practice with a photo of Fernandez serving as the "I," led off the bottom of the first inning. A lefty hitter, he stood in right-handed. After taking a pitch, he switched helmets, turned around to bat right handed and, naturally, a long home run to right field.

"That was my way of saying that I love you and I miss you," Gordon said.

After an emotional tour around the bases, Gordon cried when he returned to the dugout.

Standing in the crowd on the concourse above that wall was Raul Lopez, 42, a real estate agent and mortgage lender who lives in Coral Springs.

Lopez is a native of Santiago De Cuba, Cuba. He fled when he was 18, traveling to Florida in the same manner as Fernandez would years later.

He wore an orange Marlins T-shirt with Fernandez's name and number on the back. He talked about what Fernandez meant to him and his countrymen.

"He was the embodiment of freedom, of the American dream, of what he means to every Cuban to flee oppression, to come here with nothing and make it big, because that's how every Cuban sees this country," Lopez said. "The struggle that he went through, it's everything to us. We lost a big piece of who we are, of our identity, and he's going to live forever in our hearts."

After the game, the Marlins circled the mound and left their caps on the clay.

Before the game manager Don Mattingly knelt and kissed the mound.

"I kissed Jose and said goodbye," Mattingly said. "That was his spot."

Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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