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Journey to the mound: Alonso High School sophomore Jose Fernandez fled Cuba for the U.S.

Sophomore Jose Fernandez was stranded at sea the first time he tried to flee Cuba.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Sophomore Jose Fernandez was stranded at sea the first time he tried to flee Cuba.

Should Alonso High win today's Class 6A state baseball semifinal, sophomore Jose Fernandez will step on the hill Saturday and try to pitch the Ravens to a championship.

But the baby-faced righty just shakes his head when asked about the pressure.

Pressure? Seriously?

Just more than a year ago, Fernandez was in cold, dark water, in the middle of nowhere, fighting 8-foot waves and thinking he just might die.

He had fled Cuba at midnight in a speedboat with his mother and sister, headed for Mexico, the waves tossing the boat like it was an empty shoebox.

"This high,'' he said through a translator, holding his hands 3 feet above his 6-foot-2 frame. "I thought I was going to die many times.''

The fierce water eventually tipped the boat, dumping his mother, Maritza, into the sea. Her 15-year-old son, without hesitation, dove in after her.

Fernandez didn't have a second to flinch. His mother could not swim. She grabbed onto his neck, and he swam 30 yards back to the boat.

UPDATE, Sept. 25, 2016: Jose Fernandez dies in boating accident

Moments from boarding the bus to Port St. Lucie on Thursday morning, Jose just shrugs and says he is a good swimmer.

"He is very active; he takes action right away in everything,'' said his father, Ramon, through a translator. "Of course he was going to do something to try to fix it. The minute he saw his mom, he jumped right in after her. He's always been like that.''

Ramon fled Cuba in 2005, and Jose assumed duties as the man of the house. That wasn't a boy who jumped into the water last April. It was a man.

Still, from the moment Jose got on that boat, Ramon had many restless nights. He did not hear from his son for days.

An attempt to flee months earlier had gone awry, with the boat getting lost and Jose being stranded at sea for seven days before an American boat found his group and returned them to Cuba.

"Very, very scared,'' Ramon said.

It took almost a month of covert travel in Mexico and at least one 36-hour bus ride for Jose and his family to reach Laredo, Texas, on May 5. Now that he has been here a year, he is going through the process of becoming a permanent U.S. resident.

• • •

Fernandez has a 3.4 grade point average at Alonso. He takes special classes, some with bilingual teachers, others without as he fights through the language barrier to succeed.

His father, a doctor in Cuba who is trying to get licensed here, speaks very little English. His mother, who works in a hotel, speaks none.

Ramon Fernandez chose Alonso for his son because of coach Landy Faedo and assistant Pete Toledo, a Cuban expatriate.

"I didn't understand so much before, but now I do,'' Jose Fernandez said. "I feel like here I am part of a family.''

Senior pitcher Ray Delphey said Fernandez was a shy sophomore when the season began but has grown into a loose veteran.

"He's starting to catch on," Delphey said. "He can get in and out of conversations now. He's hilarious. A good guy, and with him, everything's a joke.''

Delphey's season-ending knee injury was supposed to drive a stake through the heart of Alonso's postseason chances, but the team is now 27-3 and has won 13 of 14 games since the loss.

"Everyone has stepped up,'' Delphey said, "especially Jose.''

A reliever initially, Fernandez stepped in to beat Class 5A state semifinalist Plant twice and won last week's region final with a four-hit, 10-strikeout effort.

His fastball was clocked at 94 mph in that game, and if Alonso wins today, he will start in Saturday's championship.

• • •

Fernandez started playing baseball in Cuba when he was 5. He pitched in national championship games at ages 10, 12 and 14. He was enrolled in the Villa Clara Province's School for Sports Initiation (EIDE), which admits only the best athletes, and was on track to join the Cuban National Team.

Fernandez grew up admiring Cuban pitchers Norge Luis Vera and Pedro Luis Lazo, but he dreamed of pitching in the majors. That meant, eventually, having to flee his native country in the dead of night.

"Since I was 8 I dreamed of that,'' said Fernandez, and his father said he is overjoyed that in two years, his son may sign a baseball contract.

"I am very, very proud of him.''

• • •

Fernandez trains with Orlando Chinea, the former Cuban National Team pitching coach who fled in 2004. Chinea has worked with MLB pitchers such as Livan Hernandez and former Tampa Bay Ray Rolando Arrojo, who is part of Fernandez's support group.

He has put on 30 pounds since arriving, now weighing 205. His pitches continue to gain steam, and he hopes to throw about 100 of them Saturday.

"That would be the biggest game of my life,'' Fernandez said. "I feel something inside of me. I feel secure. I feel confident.''

But pressure? Nah.

That may come next year, if the Ravens are defending champs, with him and the returning Thomas Dorminy heading up an even better pitching staff.

"We win this year, and you know you have to win the next two years, too, right?'' Toledo says in Spanish.

Fernandez laughs, and in perfect English looks at him and says: "I'm ready.''

John C. Cotey can be reached at johncotey@gmail.com

State baseball

Tradition Field, Port St. Lucie. Admission is $8 per session.

Class 6A semifinal: Alonso vs. Lake Brantley, 1 p.m. today

On the Web: Throughout the tourney, we'll be live blogging all the games our local teams are in at blogs.tampabay.com/preps

Inside: Cambridge comes back from a five-run deficit, then falls to Deltona Trinity Christian 10-6 in 10 innings in the Class A title game. 9C

Journey to the mound: Alonso High School sophomore Jose Fernandez fled Cuba for the U.S. 05/21/09 [Last modified: Sunday, September 25, 2016 10:24am]
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