Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident near Miami Beach early Sunday morning, a stunning loss that left the baseball world mourning one of its brightest and most charismatic prodigies. He was 24.
Grief streamed from all corners of the major leagues in honor of the Marlins ace. His harrowing defection from Cuba as a teenager triggered his rise to stardom, which itself was the most fitting tribute to his own outsized talent and tenacity.
“Sadly, the brightest lights are often the ones that extinguish the fastest,” Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria said in a statement. “Jose left us far too soon, but his memory will endure in all of us. At this difficult time, our prayers are with his mother, grandmother, family and friends.”
This past week, Fernandez announced on social media that he and his girlfriend were expecting a child.
Through their own memories, teammates and rivals painted a portrait of a fiery competitor whose emotions flowed freely, a refreshing contrast within a game still bound by staid codes of conduct. They used words such as inspiration, energy and joy.
The Marlins canceled their scheduled Sunday home game against the Braves. Instead of playing, coaches and players gathered for a midday news conference. They wore black jerseys and lowered their heads, standing behind manager Don Mattingly as he battled tears.
“When I think about Jose, I see such a little boy,” Mattingly said. “The way he played, there was just joy with him.”
In statements, commissioner Rob Manfred said baseball was “shocked and saddened” by the loss, and union chief Tony Clark remembered Fernandez as a “remarkable young man and a tremendously gifted athlete.”
According to authorities, at around 3:15 a.m., a routine U.S. Coast Guard patrol discovered a 32-foot vessel capsized near Miami Beach after striking a jetty at full speed. Investigators said they do not believe drugs or alcohol played a factor in the crash, which scattered debris in the water.
Three men, all in their 20s, were found dead, including Fernandez. The pitcher was not believed to have been behind the wheel of the boat that was owned by a friend of several Marlins players. None was wearing a life jacket. The identities of the two other victims had yet to be released.
Fernandez originally was scheduled to pitch Sunday. But the day before, Mattingly bumped his start back to Monday, lining him up to pitch against the Mets. Marlins team president David Samson said the game will go on as scheduled.
Few athletes shared as strong a bond with a city as did Fernandez, whose personal journey mirrored that of so many in the stands. Miami officials spent much of Sunday honoring the pitcher, a reflection of how he transcended baseball to become a point of civic pride.
Fernandez needed four tries to escape from Cuba. One previous defection attempt landed him in jail. In 2008, his final try, he was forced to jump out of a speedboat to pull his mother out of the water. He was 15.
Fernandez ultimately settled with family in Tampa, Florida. By 2011, his path to stardom had opened, with the Marlins making him a first-round selection in that year’s amateur draft. Two years later, he was named the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year.
An imposing figure on the mound, the 6-2, 240-pound Fernandez bullied hitters with a fastball that hummed in the high 90s and a slider that left them in knots. His skill was rivaled only by his charisma. He often pumped his fist after strikeouts and played to the crowd, unapologetically.
This year, Fernandez was in the midst of perhaps his best season, the clearest sign yet that he had fully recovered from Tommy John surgery in 2014 that briefly halted his career. He compiled a 38-17 record with a 2.58 ERA, leaving the organization with visions of Cy Young Awards and World Series championships.
But in dark waters early Sunday morning, those aspirations were dashed, sending a wave of shock shared throughout baseball.
In Miami, workers painted Fernandez’s No. 16 on the mound at Marlins Park. Teammate Dee Gordon knelt before the makeshift memorial.
In Toronto, Yankees designated hitter Brian McCann called Fernandez “one of those competitors you loved competing against because you know he’s going to bring his best.”
The two tangled once, with McCann objecting to Fernandez’s celebration after hitting his first career home run. But on Sunday, McCann remembered only a respected rival, saying, “What he did in a short amount of time was incredible.”
In New York, the silence in the Mets clubhouse was pierced only by televisions tuned to news coverage of Fernandez’s death, all of them playing at full volume.
Jose Reyes, a former Marlins teammate, refused comment. So did Yoenis Cespedes, who like Fernandez is a native of Cuba. But before first pitch against the Phillies, Cespedes stood in the dugout, taping up a specially made Mets jersey featuring Fernandez’s name and number.
Manager Terry Collins devoted his entire pregame news conference to Fernandez, who in 2013 made his big-league debut at Citi Field. He was 20. “When the first pitch left his hand, the first thought was ‘Oh wow, this is something special,’ ” Collins said.
Through the years, the two crossed paths frequently. At the 2013 All-Star Game at Citi Field, Collins vividly remembered Fernandez’s kindness and warmth to the team’s kitchen staff. At this year’s Midsummer Classic, Fernandez thanked Collins for putting him on the team, his second All-Star appearance.
Even in the heat of a wild-card chase, Collins knows the shadow of something much larger will loom over the Mets and Marlins Monday night, when they return to the field for the first time.
“It’s going to be a tough night for everybody, but we’ll get through it, because we have to,” Collins said. “Everybody who has ever played the game knows it has to go on.”
With Erik Boland, Mark Herrmann and The Associated Press
Baseball notables react to the death of Jose Fernandez:
“I saw a better talent than I was lose his life this tragic morning.”
— Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez
“It’s so horribly sad on so many different levels that there’ll be no more of that, no more of him, there’ll be no more of that emotion on the mound, that skill set, that human being, that young man with such a gift, such a great smile.”
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle
“I don’t have the words to describe the pain I feel.”
— Retiring Red Sox star David Ortiz, who asked the Tampa Bay Rays to cancel a pregame tribute they planned in his honor before his final game at their park Sunday.
“I said, ‘You don’t throw me any fastballs.’ And he said, ‘Why would I throw you any fastballs?’ We just started laughing. That’s the kind of guy he was. He had an infectious smile and a love for the game I hope every ballplayer could have.”
— White Sox third baseman Todd Frazier, recalling a pregame conversation with Fernandez
“It was probably that year at the New York sports writers’ dinner, he won Rookie of the Year. And he did it in Spanish and I think at the end he said, ‘I’ll do this next year in English.’ And if I’m not correct, his English is flawless. I just remember watching that and thought it was pretty cool.”
— Indians manager Terry Francona
“When I think about Josie, it’s going to be thinking about a little kid . . . I see such a little boy in him . . . the way he played . . . Kids play Little League, that’s the joy Jose played with.”
— Marlins manager Don Mattingly