The Tragic Story of José Fernández and the Miami Marlins

(Picture Credit: NY Times)

September 25th, 2016. A day that will forever be ingrained in baseball fans memories as one of the most tragic 24 hours in the history of the MLB. One of the games best young talents was suddenly swept away, leaving one franchise and the entire baseball community at a loss of words. It didn’t seem possible, but yet he was gone, and he was never going to throw another baseball ever again. 

Once the details around his death emerged, most fans could only shake their heads at the negligence and stupidity that resulted in his tragic passing. How could someone with so much potential and support, engage in such a reckless activity that ultimately ended his life? His single decision set an emerging franchise back multiple years in their rebuild and there was nothing anybody could do about it. This is the story of José Fernández and the Miami Marlins. 

Baseball is a staple in Cuba and José Fernández was certainly one to quickly grasp onto the popular spot. Fernández grew up playing the game in his home country and soon became one of the best players on the island. Even in Cuba, many kids have dreams of one day making it to the MLB, where they could showcase their talents in front of thousands of fans on a nightly basis. Fernández and his family felt that he had what it took to one day make it to the majors, and began the treacherous journey of defecting from Cuba and moving to the United States. It wasn’t without fail, as José attempted to reach America four times before he was actually successful.

After the third failed attempt he even served a year in prison at only 14 years old, but that wasn’t enough to deter him from making another attempt to get to the U.S. On his fourth attempt, which was ultimately successful, a large wave careemeed over the boat, knocking one of the travelers off of the vessel and into the pitch black ocean. Being the strong charactered person he was, José jumped off the boat and swam to help the lady who was stranded in the middle of the ocean, only to discover that it was his mother. In an interview with the Miami Herald in 2013, Fernández commented on the rescue mission, stating, “I dove to help a person not thinking who that person was. Imagine when I realized it was my own mother. If that does not leave a mark on you for the rest of your life, I don’t know what will.” José and his mother eventually reached Mexico in 2007, when he was only 15 years old and soon moved to Tampa Bay in 2008 where they were ready to begin their new life. 

(Picture Credit: Miami Herald)

José was enrolled at Braulio High School in Tampa Bay, Florida where he played varsity baseball for three years. Right after graduation, Fernández was drafted by the Florida Marlins with the 14th overall pick in the 1st round of the 2011 draft. José was one of the top pitching prospects in the 2011 in the draft class and he certainly benefited from this, as he received a $2,000,000 signing bonus after inking his contract with the team. The minors were of no difficulty for José, as he quickly climbed up the ranks in the Marlins organization and was named the 5th overall prospect in all of baseball heading into the 2013 season. 

The Marlins invited José to spring training in 2013, where his impressive play ultimately landed himself a spot on the Marlins 25 man roster, and starting rotation. José made his debut against the Mets at Citi Field on April 7th, 2013 where he pitched five innings of just one run ball, a very impressive outing for someone as young as Fernández. He wasn’t done there however, as he continued to mow down batters at an impressive rate, earning his way to an N.L All Star appearance as only the second youngest player in the National League. The remainder of his 2013 campaign was just as impressive, as he finished the year with a ridiculous 2.19 ERA, 12-6, .979 WHIP, and league leading 5.8 H/9. These numbers were good enough to win him the N.L Rookie of the Year award, along with a 3rd place finish in the N.L Cy Young voting. In only one season, Fernández had already cemented himself as one of the best pitchers in the National League, and it looked like nothing could stop him. 

(Picture Credit: SB Nation)

Fernández was off to another blazing start in the 2014 season but was placed on the disabled list after only eight starts, due to elbow soreness. After further examination, it was revealed that José would need Tommy John surgery, which would keep him sidelined for the remainder of the 2014 season, along with the majority of the 2015 season. Through those eight starts Fernandez had posted similar numbers to his 2013 campaign, as he had another sub 2.50 ERA, a winning record, and struck out 70 batters in just 51.2 innings of work. The Marlins finished the season just eight games under .500, their best record since 2010 and that was without having José for ¾ of the season. 

Miami had their sights set on a strong 2015 campaign, but their main focus was getting Fernández back onto the mound, and having him perform at a high level like he was before his injury. Soon enough, on July 2nd, Fernández emerged from the dugout to start his first game in over a year for the Miami Marlins. It looked like José hadn’t missed a beat, as he was his old joyful self on the mound, leading the charge of the team with six solid innings, along with a homerun to help his team on the offensive side of the ball. Unfortunately, José battled back and forth with his injury which ultimately landed on the disabled list once again during the 2015 season. He finished the season with 11 starts and a strong record of 6-1. He once again had a season with an ERA under 3.00 and struck out 79 batters in 64.2 innings of play. 

2016 was going to be the year for the Marlins and Fernández. The team had a loaded offensive core which included Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Dee Gordon along with others. The rotation looked decent but Fernández was such a strong talent that the team was confident he could lead the other pitchers to success over the course of what many were hoping would be his second full season in the big leagues. 

(Picture Credit: Fishstripes.com)

The Marlins got off to a hot start in the first half of the season, and sat at 46-41 heading into the All Star break. Fernández was once again tearing it up on the field, as made his second N.L All Star team and was solidifying himself as one of the best pitchers in the entire MLB. Unfortunately for the Marlins, the team began to slip out of the race as the season progressed into the late summer months but management and ownership were very impressed with the product that they had on the field. Even though they were going to miss out on the playoffs, management was confident that they could improve the team to be a top tier contender in the National League with just a few moves, primarily in the pitching department. That was until the morning of September 25th, 2016.

It was a bright sunny Sunday morning and the MLB was heading into the final week of its season, when the tragic news broke the airways. At just 24 years old, José Fernández had died during the early stages of the morning, in a fatal boating accident that also killed two others. Numbness and disbelief filled the realm of sports social media, as everybody seemed shocked at the news, hoping that it was just a bad dream. The young star pitcher who had worked so hard to get to where he was, had passed and it didn’t feel real. 

The Marlins quickly canceled their game that day and a large memorial began to form at Marlins Park, where José was set to pitch that night. Details were beginning to emerge about the superstar's death, and it was reported that he had hit a jetty in the middle of the water at around 3 am, in his boat, killing him and the other on impact. 

(Picture Credit: Business Insider)

Many thought that Fernández was the embodiment of the American dream, and a lot of Cuban’s and Miami natives looked up to him as he made it seem like anybody could achieve their dream if they worked for it. José’s nickname was Niño, or “little boy” in English, which perfectly embodied Fernández’s personality and love for the game. He was passionate, flashy, exciting to watch and was a player that every fan loved to watch. 

It was a very tough day for many players around the league that day, as although José was an opponent and competitor to most, he was just as much of a friend to those same people, off the field. Many teams honored him with that day with #16 jerseys that hung in their dugout and patches on their jersey, a nice way to pay respect to the late pitcher. 

The following day the Marlins faced the Mets, in what was one of the most emotional games in MLB history. Every player on Miami doned “Fernandez” #16 jerseys for the game and there was not a dry eye in the ballpark after the pre-game ceremony and beautifully performed national anthem. After a scoreless top half of the first inning, Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon stepped up to the plate to get the hitting started for Miami. Gordon, who is a left handed batter, stepped into the right handed batters back for the first pitch of the at bat, a touching gesture to Fernández who swung that bat right handed. Gordon then switched around to his normal batting side where he was ready to take some real hacks at the ball. On a 2-0 pitch Gordon swung at a high changeup and crushed it to deep right field, where it landed in the upper deck. Gordon, who was not known for his power, had only hit eight career home runs in his six MLB seasons up until that point. It was a true miracle and a moment that many couldn’t believe including Gordon himself. Gordon later said after the game,"I ain’t never hit a ball that far, even in BP”. The Marlins ended up winning the game and it was a contest that many fans and players will not soon forget, as it had such a profound impact on so many people. 

(Picture Credit: NY Times)

The season soon ended for the Marlins and the playoffs came and went leading to a very long offseason for the team where they would look at an impossible task of trying to find a guy who could fill the void of the ace position for the Marlins pitching staff. Many Marlins fans wanted this to be the point of contention over the offseason, but the focus was instead on the new details that emerged about Fernández’s death. 

Around the time of the World Series, ESPN secured toxicology and autopsy results from Fernandez’s death. It was reported that at his time of death, Fernández had a BAC of .147, nearly twice the legal limit. It was also revealed that Fernández had cocaine in his system, a shocking development in the story. It was declared that Fernández had committed a multitude of crimes while driving the boat including two counts of involuntary manslaughter (the two other men who died onboard), vessel homicide, operating a vessel under the influence, as well as others. The men’s families who died alongside Fernández, ended up suing the Fernández estate for $2,000,000, which was settled for an undisclosed amount at a later date. 

Many perspectives on the Fernández death changed after people learned the details, as they no longer looked at him as a victim of a flukey incident, but rather an immature murderer who’s poor decisions cost him and two others their lives. There’s many different angles to look at what happened but it is sad to imagine how dominant Fernández would have been for years to come, which still makes his death tragic to many fans around the game. 

As for the Marlins, this move was devastating to their organization. They were arguably one to two quality starters away from being one of the best teams in the N.L, especially with the lineup that they had. The team struggled again during the 2017 season, and with a new ownership group coming in for the 2018 season, it was evident that there would be major changes to the roster. 

The organization traded away the entire starting outfield after the season for a plethora of prospects. Giancarlo Stanton, who was coming off a N.L MVP award winning, 59 homerun season, was dealt to the Yankees. Christian Yelich, who was beginning to look like a stud, was traded to the Brewers, where he finished the 2018 season as the N.L MVP, and 2019 season as the N.L MVP runner up, even though he had an even better statistical season then he did in 2018. Marcell Ozuna, who had been an All Star in 2016 and 2017, was sent to the Cardinals where he had two more solid seasons. The team also traded Dee Gordon after the 2017 season and J.T. Realmuto following the 2018 season, after he was an All Star for the team. 

(Picture Credit: Off The Bench Baseball)

The Marlins looked to have all the pieces they needed on their roster and were ready to go for a strong 2017 campaign before José Fernández’s death at the end of the 2016 season. I can’t tell you what would have happened the following year if Fernández was still alive, but I do think that the organization would look a whole lot different today if his death hadn’t occurred. The Marlins are arguably the worst team in the N.L at the moment, after coming off a 100+ loss season in 2019. It could be a while until the Marlins are good again, and the rebuild is in full swing right now for the organization. But where would they be if it hadn’t been for one stupid decision by one of their pitchers?

- Andrew Gardner UNH '23 

1 comment

  • Brilliant piece

    Robert Gardner

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