Friends, family in Tampa Bay recall Jose Fernandez's joy, friendliness

Published Sept. 26, 2016

Anthony Chickillo remembers how his buddy Jose Fernandez predicted back in high school that he would not only someday reach the major leagues but that he would be a star once he arrived.

"Everything he said came true," Chickillo said Sunday morning by phone from Philadelphia.

A linebacker for the Steelers, Chickillo was preparing to play the Eagles later in the day.

The Alonso High grad spoke in measured tones as he tried to come to grips with the news that Fernandez, 24, was one of three young men killed early Sunday morning in a boating accident off Miami Beach.

"It's such a tragic, tragic loss," Chickillo said. "It's just horrible, man. Jose was such a good guy, a real family guy. He really loved his family."

Friends and family gathered Sunday at the Tampa home in the Egypt Lake area where Fernandez lived while attending high school.

"I was in shock," said Richard Ramos, a close relative. "The whole family is like 'This is unbelievable.' "

Fernandez lived at the home with the man who raised him from infancy, Ramon Jimenez, and Jimenez's mother, Julia Fuentes. Fernandez's biological father left when he was young.

"He was always happy," Fuentes, 80, said in Spanish with Ramos translating. "He was always making jokes and helping others."

The news of Fernandez's death was a devastating blow around the majors and, of course, in Tampa Bay. Those who knew him chose to remember how Fernandez lived instead of how he died.

"We were playing in a fall league game, and he hit a home run and he was running and jumping around the bases. I asked him, 'What are you doing?' '' Alonso baseball coach Landy Faedo said. "I told him we don't do that here. You've got to cool down. He got better as he went along, matured some, but you could never take all of the joy out of Jose. It's who he was. He brought so much to every moment."

Tony Saladino was at a cemetery Sunday morning in Thonotosassa, visiting the grave of his late wife, Bertha, when he heard the news. Bertha, like Fernandez, was a native of Cuba.

Fernandez won the 2011 Saladino Award as the top baseball player in Hillsborough County. He received the award during a dinner reception at the Saladino's home in Brandon.

"I just came across a picture of he and my wife," Saladino said. "You got those two Cubans together and it was a double-warming feeling. Outgoing, just jolly, friendly. I just can't say enough about him. Hard worker. He worked hard to get to where he was at. Jovial, just as friendly as he could be.

"So when he met my wife, just talking about Cuba, it was a beautiful thing. … All the warmth and all the joy came out, it was a double whammy for both of them."

Steinbrenner High baseball coach John Crumbly remembered a game during the program's inaugural season when the Warriors lost 4-1 to Alonso. Fernandez didn't pitch that day. He did, however, his two home runs and drive in all four runs.

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"Such a sad day with the news about Jose," Crumbly said. "The Crumbley and Steinbrenner family's prayers go out to the Fernandez and Alonso families. Jose was always so nice when I would see him at ballfields or around Tampa."

The last time Chickillo saw Fernandez was when they bumped into each other at a Miami restaurant in July, shortly before Chickillo left for training camp.

"He was just really excited for what was coming ahead for him," Chickillo said. "He was excited for what I had going on, too."

That was Fernandez. Excited about himself, excited about his friends and family.

Excited about life.

Times staff writers Joey Knight, Kathryn Varn and Matt Baker contributed to this report.