The back story of Jose Fernandez, who escaped from Cuba by boat on his fourth try as a teenager, made his death early Sunday that much more heart-wrenching. The charismatic Miami Marlins ace was killed in a boating accident at age 24.
Sporting a José Fernández jersey, Gabriel Diaz, 13, held back tears while playing catch at Marlins Park beneath a sign displaying his favorite player’s name and number.
He woke up to news that Fernández, 24, had been killed early Sunday morning along with two friends in a boating accident in Government Cut, the channel that separates Miami Beach from Fisher Island.
Diaz plays second base and shortstop and was at the stadium to watch the Marlins take on the Atlanta Braves, but the game was cancelled in memory of Fernández.
“I didn’t believe the news,” he told Fox News Latino. “I thought it was a joke. I still don’t believe it.”
Marlins president David Samson held back tears at a news conference.
“As you see around you, there are no words to describe how this organization feels,” he said. “There’s no playbook. There [are] no words of consolation. There’s prayer, and there’s thought toward his family, toward his soon-to-be-born daughter. You realize how precious life is, how taking things for granted is a foolish man’s game.”
Fernández’s girlfriend, Carla Mendoza, is pregnant with his child.
Fans from different nationalities came out to Marlins Park despite the cancellation. They formed a makeshift memorial composed of flowers and handwritten notes. They knelt to pray and read verses from the Bible.
Fernández, born in Cuba, left a huge hole in the South Florida sports community.
Diaz’s mother, Mercedes Gonzalez, is from Venezuela, and she said that Fernández’s death had impacted her.
"When I found out, we were so sad," she said. "We are super fans, as Venezuelans we are big baseball fans … We would come to the ballpark constantly. José never refused an autograph or picture – he always had a smile. He was like a little kid. This is a tragedy."
The mayor of the City of Miami, Tomas Regalado, said the pitcher’s death has left everyone heartbroken.
“I was honored to give the key to the City to Marlins pitcher José Fernández as a rising star and proud son of Miami. My condolences to his family and to the Miami Marlins. His death is a huge loss for our community,” Regalado said in a press release.
Cuban María de Nacimiento has arthritis but ignored the pain to sign a message for Fernández’s family on a shirt on the floor in front of the makeshift memorial.
“I think of his mother,” said de Nacimiento, who had tickets to Sunday’s game. “There are no words to describe this tragedy, but we wanted to show them we are thinking of them. “
Andrew Gonzalez attended Friday’s game with his daughter. He knelt down in front of the memorial. He said the loss of the two-time All-Star is like losing family.
“Everyone is paying their respects to a good guy,” said Gonzalez, who held the ball Fernández had signed for his daughter. “We were at a game Friday, and, out of all the players, José was the only one who gave autographs to the kids. He signed my daughter’s ball and gave the kids behind us sunflower seeds. All around, he was a great person.”
Longtime Marlins Spanish-language broadcaster Felo Ramirez said he was in disbelief. He believed that if Fernández had kept the same rhythm, he would have started the 2017 All-Star game, which will be held at Marlins Park.
“This is extremely sad. No one would have ever thought this,” he said. “We expected the world from him. He was at his peak. He was just starting, and he already was huge. There was so much more for him. He was the star of the team.”
The Marlins ace was the 2013 National League Rookie of the year. In his four-year career, he had a 38-17 record and a 2.58 ERA.
The charismatic ball player’s journey to the United States was challenging as he tried several times and finally making to U.S. soil on his fourth attempt. He even spent time in Cuban prison after one failed defection.
When he finally did succeed, he told Grantland, it was only after a trip on a speedboat with his mother and sister during which his mom fell overboard and the teenage athlete dove into the rough surf to rescue her.
Fernández was expected to start Monday’s game.
The Marlins will host a series against the New York Mets starting Monday night in what is expected to be an emotional game for both fans and players.