Five years have passed since the tragedy, but it is still a blow that I cannot assimilate as a permanent loss. It was a Sunday full of pain and sorrow that mourned the baseball fans, a city and a country. Jose Delfin Fernandez Gomez, called to reign as the best Cuban pitcher in Major League history and one of the greats of all time, had died at dawn on September 25, 2016 in a absurd maritime accident in Miami Beach.
The boat capsized and embedded on a rocky barrier was the symbolic image of the devastation. Miami – and especially Cuban Miami – entered a trance state in the face of immeasurable misfortune. A young man who was barely 24 years old had reached the peak of triumph, reserved only for exceptional figures, a Cuban immigrant who imposed himself by force of talent and will, a charismatic and smiling boy who magnetized with his mere presence, there were too many reasons to to be able to digest an adversity that seemed dictated by a strange spell.
Actually, Fernández was a sports sensation, a baseball outburst of those who appear very exceptionally to mark an era. To his physical conditions and his natural skills to play ball, he combined the passion for competing and the enjoyment of surrendering on the field with overflowing joy.
When you review the numbers and count his work in the four major league seasons that the Marlins franchise completed, between 2013 and 2016, the certainty that Fernández was on his way to achieving unique feats is inevitable. That, without forgetting that the 2014 season and part of the 2015 season were affected by Tommy John surgery that had to be performed on his pitching arm.
Joseíto – as his followers popularly called him – achieved in his debut the distinction of Rookie of the Year in a contest in which he was among the three finalists to win nothing less than the Cy Young Award, and went on to appear in two All-Star Games.
Their total statistics they are overwhelming. In 76 games pitched in his professional career, always as a starter, he compiled a record of 38-17, with 569 strikeouts in 471.1 innings of action. His ERA was 2.58 and his WHIP was 1.05.
The death It surprises him in a season of consecration. He had set a franchise record of 253 strikeouts and his frequency of 12.49 strikeouts per nine innings was the highest in the majors. That year, he was 16-8 with a 2.86 ERA and led major league pitchers with the lowest contact percentage of batters faced (67.5%). The contest gave him one more opening, on Monday, September 26 at the Little Havana stadium, but fate set a fatal trap for him.
But there was something beyond the statistics that definitely made Fernandez uniquely attractive. And it was his legend. A story that magnetized the South Florida community like never before with Marlins players since the birth of the franchise in 1993, and that conditioned a complicity between the fans and his smiling warrior figure. The “Fernández spirit” was felt in the surroundings of the stadium and caught even the vendors of parking spaces in the neighborhood.
“Today the Cuban Child is going to pitch, that’s mine, so parking is worth more,” one of the residents of the area told me smiling the last time I could see him pitch in Little Havana.
Fernández embodied for many the determination of freedom and the triumph of the Cuban in exile: the humble boy who embraces baseball in a neighborhood of Santa Clara; his frustrated attempts to illegally leave Cuba; the stormy episode of the escape and the accident of the boat at sea, which forces him to rescue his own mother from the water; his return to the fields in Tampa at the hands of a luxury mentor like Orlando Chinea, a former pitching coach for the Cuban national team and exiled in the United States after a long odyssey of 11 aborted starts; his unquestionable athletic superiority in the school leagues and the dizzying rise to the Major Leagues … An itinerary of obstacles overcome with the Cuban halo, which raised his popularity to the scale of living myths.
I write these notes out of a love for baseball that has accompanied me since childhood and with the pride of having met Fernández, a Cuban and a Villareño. His death inevitably brought me back to another boxing star, José Antonio Huelga from Spiritus, who died in a car accident in 1974, at only 26 years old and with an iron arm that left impressive figures of dominance and effectiveness.
Like many Miami residents, Fernández’s death and memorial service shocked me severely during those dark days. But nothing compares with the professional challenge and emotional shock that the visit to the house of his mother, Maritza Gómez, constituted for me in 2017, just one year after the death of the pitcher. The house is a sanctuary for personal belongings, trophies, photos and extensive memorabilia of his career, but above all it is the place where he perceives, above all, the irreparable emptiness he left in his loved ones.
The most overwhelming thing for me continues to be having listened to Maritza’s story and understanding the questions that she – with the perseverance of maternal love – continues to ask life.
As on other previous occasions, Maritza will be at dawn on September 25 at sea, near the place that took her beloved son from her. For her there is no possible consolation and all the words are inept to alleviate the sadness of this hour, but I dare to tell her that in some way, we will all be there with her, wrapping up the memory of José.
The Cuban-American lawyer Ralph Fernández, who appeared as personal advisor and close friend of the player, has been a key player in the legal issues that arose from the maritime accident, with the balance of two other deceased crew members: Emilio Jesús Macías, 27, and Eduardo Rivero, 25.
The authorities’ interpretation of the incident, contained in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) report, blame José for the accident and add other ingredients about the possibility that he was driving the yacht drunk and under the influence of narcotics.
Attorney Fernández, based in Tampa, has fervently opposed the FWC’s version and considers that the investigation was flawed from the beginning, compromising the case and leading to erroneous conclusions.
Ralph Fernández’s rebuttal is contained in a 167-page document, delivered in 2018, in which the evidence handled by the FWC is questioned.
“The document is long and detailed, but I think that very little has been read among those who address the issue of José in the media,” Fernández told me this week.
Although there are numerous enigmas that remain in the case, the truth is that all the legal issues – including a lawsuit against the player’s estate – have been resolved without resorting to a judicial process, with an agreement in undisclosed terms.
However, Fernández’s obsession continues to be to preserve the memory of his dear young friend, who used to call him at any time to consult him on the most incredible questions, sometimes with an almost childlike candor.
“José was crucified before the public for a poor report and the least I can do is defend his image and his legacy,” Fernández said.
The forgetfulness of José Fernández also knocks on the doors of the Miami Marlins. The memories of the Cuban ace, undoubtedly the player who energized the franchise, disappeared from the stadium and the Miami team does not seem interested in rescuing him as part of its history. Fernández and Liván Hernández -in 1997- have been the only two Cuban idols in an organization that for obvious reasons should have found great players of that origin, but that traditionally has only discovered itself.
Maritza demands at least that the Marlins officially withdraw the number 16 in tribute to her son: “It is what I ask out of respect for him and the community that deserves it so much, but they never give me an answer being something so simple. He is with God and we will always carry it in our hearts “.