It’s been eight long months since the death of Jose Fernandez yet the heart still aches. Memories of the huge smile and machine-like arm which transported the Cuban pitching sensation into the big time have been interwoven with revelations of needless recklessness and substance abuse.
While the baseball world mourned Fernandez, 24, last September after his body was found in a smashed-up boat in South Florida, it must be noted two other young men perished alongside him.
The relatives of Eduardo Rivero and Emilio Macias , who’d been partying with the pitcher, are hurting too. Both parties have launched legal battles after it was revealed the Miami Marlins star was found to be driving the boat under the influence of alcohol and cocaine.
If Fernandez had survived, he could have been facing years behind bars. Yet while everyone attempts to digest the devestating findings of the inquest which broke in March, Univision – the top Spanish language broadcaster in the United States – have produced an enlightening, excellent documentary. JDF16 reveals a side of Fernandez’s galaxy away from the person who acted so dangerously that fateful night.
With no help from the MLB (their fierce licensing rights forbade any official footage being used) and a thoroughly disappointing snub from the Marlins front office who were scared stiff of the film portraying the player and franchise in a less than favourable light, journalists David Adams and Laura Prieto Uribe attempted to show the real Fernandez.
Not a crazed fool who thought it was a good idea to drive a boat at breakneck speed at 03:00, but a young man with a baseball dream who placed family before anything.
A supremely talented, happy-go-lucky lad who saved his mother from drowning in a boat charged with taking them from Cuba to the safe haven of the United States. “Jose’s mother didn’t want to talk at first because of the drugs, the partying,” Adams told Sport360°.
“She thought we were going to portray her son as the guy from that night. That wasn’t our objective. We wanted to show how someone from Cuba starting out from where he was became such a big star.”
Watching the documentary unfold, you are instantly warmed by Fernandez. He was a charming, lovable mother’s boy who just happened to possess the ability to launch a baseball at 100mph/160kph.
“At 06:00 he was on the streets playing with a stick and stones. Any stick he found was a bat. He broke the glass on the neighbors’ doors”, recalled mother Maritza Gomez Fernandez.
Others remembered games involving balls made out of mud and running through the streets after accidentally hitting homeruns towards an elderly woman. There was mischief. Yet it wasn’t malicious.
“I knew nothing about baseball, so for me it was more that this guy has such an interesting life and it was such a dramatic death, it was a story worth telling,” said Prieto Uribe. “It became more interesting with each step. It captivated us as people and filmmakers. He was the only name I knew from the Marlins. I knew he was big but… “It’s impossible not to feel empathy towards him.”
It’s also impossible not to mull over his death and lament what should have been. At the film’s end, once the shock of his family is laid bare, some astonishing statistics flash up:
1. In the last 100 years, only 97 players aged 20 or under have pitched more than 100 innings in a season – Fernandez ranked second among all of them.
2. He holds the fourth-highest number of strikeouts in a season for pitchers under 24 with 253 outs in 2016.
3. He struck out 31 per cent of the batters he faced – the best record in Major League history – winning 69 per cent of the games he pitched making him arguably the best Cuban player ever.
Remarkable numbers which make his needless passing all the more painful. “He was especially blessed,” said former Marlins coach Chuck Hernandez. With girlfriend Maria Arias pregnant with daughter Penelope at the time of the crash, Fernandez was gearing up to sign a multi-million dollar deal which would have set his family up for life.
His rookie contract was worth around $2 million and due to expire next year. The new one was said to be in the region of $270 million. Talks had begun yet will never be completed. Once the money runs out, that’s it.
The Marlins, because Fernandez no longer plays for them, don’t have the rights to his name so you won’t find any merchandise bearing his name in the Marlins Stadium shop.
This season the players have had a No16 stitched into their uniforms while talks of a statue being built in his honour has sparked fierce debate.
Some, quite understandably, argue that a man whose actions killed two others shouldn’t be lauded. Others counter with the need to show that with fame comes responsibility. To the large Cuban community in Miami, Fernandez was a hero. A beacon of hope. A legend.
“They are desperate to preserve Jose’s legacy,” said Adams, a Brit who moved to South Florida in the 1990’s and has become enthralled with America’s favourite pastime. “Some fans would love a statue, some say we shouldn’t lionise someone who died with cocaine and alcohol in their system and contributed to the death of two others. But maybe it’s a lesson and reminder to people about the pitfalls of fame. Tell people to be responsible. There are a lot of accidents on the water, normally involving alcohol. “Why should Jose be judged by the way he died?” he added.
“He was 24, all of us have done reckless things. Society is too quick to judge sometimes. There are always haters who will go on radio shows and say strong things but we shouldn’t be like that. “Maybe we should be more forgiving and understanding and recognise that people aren’t either good or bad. “That was Jose’s story.”
Delving into Fernandez’s path to the Marlins was quite something. The trials and tribulations involved just to get to that point would have been too much for a lesser man.
Three botched attempts to leave Cuba on an illegally-commandeered boat simply strengthened his resolve.
Four state championships at high school paved the way to the Major Leagues at the age of 18 – just three years after arriving in the US – and being named ‘Rookie of the Year’ even if the Cuban authorities attempted to have their say at the stat by banning him from baseball for a year.
“When he tried to leave Cuba for the second time, the Minister of Sports punished him,” said cousin Yordan Gomez. “One of the times he came to visit family, we went to eat at a restaurant and the minister was there.
“And he told him, ‘good evening. Do you know who I am? I am Jose Fernandez, the person you banned for a year for trying to leave the country illegally on the verge of playing in the baseball world championships for 13 and 14-year-olds.
“Star pitcher for the Marlins. Rookie of the year and I want to tell you that your punishment didn’t affect my career in the least. “Today, I am bigger than ever. And today what you eat and drink is paid for by Jose Fernandez.”
That tale seemed characteristic of the boy. Fiercely determined yet going about his business with a smile. His sad demise, however, continues to raise more questions than answers.
“The investigation didn’t come out too favourably for Jose but it didn’t actually answer the questions about how the drugs entered his system, whose was it, who bought it?” said Adams.
“These are all unanswered questions. The tick-tock of that night, we still really don’t know. The others were new friends. One he’d just met that evening. “It shocked us and although it made us think for a few seconds we knew that the inquest didn’t change the story for us.
“How this little boy turned into a major leaguer. “The investigators were unable to retrieve any information from Jose’s phone. A more sophisticated investigation may be able to dig something up.
“Also now there are civil lawsuits – moved from state to federal – and the family are fighting very hard to reduce his liability and show he wasn’t as responsible perhaps as the investigation has shown. “They are digging into what happened very aggressively so it will be interesting to see what’s found.”
Fernandez’s legend lives on though no-one involved will be able to rest with legal battles set to rage for another two years. That’s a lot of time for anger to simmer and memories to become tarnished. Those closest will never forget.
It’s other perceptions -rightly or wrongly – which could become altered. “The fans, team and family need closure,” concludes Prieto Uribe.
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