Miami Marlins 20-year-old rookie Jose Fernandez is not easily intimidated. After all, he stands 6′-3″ and weighs 240 pounds. As for his lack of experience on the mound, such moments rank a distant second to the pressures he has endured off the field.
Jose Fernandez was born in Cuba, but he never played for his country’s national team, like Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes or Aroldis Chapman did. That’s because at age 15, Jose Fernandez was on a leaky boat with his mother and sister, hoping to flee the oppressive regime of Fidel Castro. Instead of preparing to sign a pro contract like teenagers in the Dominican Republic, Fernandez and others were dodging a hail of bullets fired by Cuban authorities. When the boat capsized, the youngster rescued his mom from drowning when she fell in the water. Both, however, were returned to Fidel’s shores where they served prison time. That was their third attempt to achieve freedom, something that Americans sometimes take for granted.
Determined to join his father, who had defected in 2005 and lived in Tampa Bay, Florida, Jose Fernandez would alter his route and try to flee once more, this time in a speed boat headed for Mexico. Success at last was achieved when the family arrived near the swanky Mexican resort city of Cancun. All were safe but not exactly feeling like tourists.
“I wasn’t going back to that prison again,” reflects Fernandez on his incarceration while still a child. “They treat you like animals.”
In March of 2008, Jose Fernandez first crossed into the United States through the border city of Hidalgo, Texas, and the youngster, his mother and sister would soon head for the east coast. That’s where the second chapter in Jose’s life had a new beginning.
Speaking little English, Fernandez enrolled at Braulio Alonso High School in Tampa, and would excel at a sport he fundamentally learned in Cuba at age five, throwing rocks instead of baseballs. He would pitch his varsity team to the Florida state finals over three consecutive seasons, and was selected in the first round of the 2011 amateur draft by the Marlins, the 14th overall pick.
What’s most impressive about Jose Fernandez, in my view, is that he made the leap from single-A ball to the major leagues in one year, and without any college experience. Such a feat is almost unprecedented, and critics have argued the youngster was promoted too early because the Marlins were desperate for fresh arms. But Fernandez has answered back with a record of 4-4 as a starter in the rotation, with a 2.98 ERA and has 84 strikeouts in an equal number of innings pitched. Furthermore, he is on pace to meet his 170 innings count, as set by the Marlins, without any down time.
Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria is not one of my favorite people in this world, and I wish he would let manager Mark Redmond make out his own lineup. But I stand in solidarity with his decision to promote Fernandez ahead of schedule.
“Jose is unique,” observes Loria, ” and he is one of the most impressive young men I’ve ever met.”
It’s also my belief that Jose’s personal trainer, Orlando Chinea, has been a major factor in the kid’s rapid success. Unlike many pitching coaches who allow their proteges to spend hours in the weight room, Chinea endorses a more fluid and balanced type of physical training. The center point of his program is plyometric exercises that increase both speed and power. Fernandez has been a good listener, works hard and is obviously mature beyond his years.
“I think what I experienced in Cuba, being in prison and risking my life for freedom, is a big part of who I am,” reflects Jose. “It’s made me a better person.”
I agree. But those ordeals of the past have also given Jose Fernandez the focus to be a terrific big-league pitcher. And I might add, an excellent role model for youth here and in Cuba.