Life, much like a game of baseball, is an adventure.
Each adventure begins with hope and excitement. Unknown opportunities that lie ahead. Each time a new one begins no one can imagine how it will possibly be unique. Yet like a snowflake, no two are ever the same. At the end of each the immediate reaction is to reflect on the recent; the ending. In the case of life we turn directly to death. This is why I’ve waited a few days to write this post.
“If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”
The late-great Yogi Berra
Over the weekend the game of baseball was hit with tragic news. The 2013 NL Rookie of the Year and already-turned superstar, Jose Fernandez, 24, was killed in a boating accident early Sunday morning. Truly devastating news. Grief has been felt across all demographics of people throughout this week. Thousands of news articles with proceeding events have surfaced about the accident. But one accident should not define the legacy of a great individual. For the rest of this piece I will not linger in sadness. After reading and learning about him over the past few days I feel it necessary to lend a hand in the telling of his legacy. Here’s the powerful story of a great man.
Jose Fernandez was made for Miami, and he knew it.
He first saw his ‘home’ in 2008, while on a boat just off the shoreline — the lights dominated the whole western horizon outlining the goal destination. He didn’t know much about the city, but he knew it had Cubans. He was Cuban. He also knew it had baseball. He played baseball. Those were the only two things he needed. He had been told life there was easy, and from others that it was hard. Either way, he knew he had to go. This wouldn’t be that time though.
As his boat drew closer to the shore, yet another pair of lights began approaching at a much quicker rate. His heart sank. This escape was over. It was the US Coast Guard. If were part of the fortunate to make it through the highly patrolled waters and step on US land, you could stay. If you were caught in the waters, you were sent back to Cuba.
Fernandez and Co. were caught offshore. Prison sentences awaited the group back in Cuba. This didn’t bother nor worry Fernandez in the least though. He’d been through it before. After all, this was his third attempt at it. Never once discouraged by his thwarted efforts, Fernandez was driven to escape for good.
Three times, they set off for Miami. Three times, they failed. Fernandez was a 15-year old boy in prison for attempted escape. And there were no scaled down versions of prison in Cuba. No Juvenile Detention Centers. He was in prison alongside the country’s most hardened criminals. Murders, rapists, child abusers – you name it. The food served was best defined by the lack of color. Calling it gruel is potentially serving it lightly. They were given the bare minimum to survive. It was as if life didn’t exist inside the prison confines.
Once he was released from prison, his mom had developed a new plan for escape. This plan was different though. They wouldn’t take the typical route north. Instead, they would travel south to depart from a beach near the city of Trinidad. They also wouldn’t head in direct route to Florida. No, this time they would set off for Cancun. It was a longer, more treacherous route, but with significantly less policing. The waters were dramatically tougher, but they felt the risk was worth it to avoid the prestigious US Coast Guard. Twelve of them in total including: Jose, his mom, his stepsister, and his grandmother, would cram into a small vessel in the dead of night.
In his first three attempts there were other people lining the shores waiting for their boats. That was often tried the north-side of the island though. This was the south. Nobody else stood nervously awaiting for their boat to arrive this go-round. A calm stillness set the tone. It was just past midnight when a rain began to fall. The group scurried for dry cover. They found a cave. Their feet were gashed by the sharp rocks lining the floor. The cave sat eerily close to a heavily-policed lighthouse. Fernandez thought it was genius. They’ll never suspect us here, he later told a reporter. An offshore light then beamed into the cave. They instinctively ducked. Pausing for a moment of silence. Then the phone rang. It was their ride.
Jose jumped in the water to check the depth. He was roughly 6 feet tall and couldn’t touch. It was clear. The captain carefully maneuvered the boat into the cave’s waters. Once all parties had boarded they sped off. Leaving the island was the easy part. They all knew what lay ahead.
Not long afterwards that they made it to international waters. A houseboat was waiting for them. “Turn around and look,” the captain told the escapees. “This is the last time you’re ever going to see Cuba.” Yeah, right, Fernandez thought. He had believed this each of the last 3 times he’d attempted to leave. All 3 times he was headed back to Cuba days later. He kept his hopes in check.
The houseboat provided was enormous. Far more than what Fernandez felt necessary. With its’ excessive height, the boat it made for an extremely nauseous trip. Waves crashed into the sides causing standing passengers to fall over. It all led to Fernandez becoming extremely seasick. A nausea that caused him to go unconscious for nearly 24 hours. With his stepsister by his side he eventually came to. The sickness would soon be the least of his worries though.
While chatting with the captain the boat was hit by an invasive wave. With everything happening so fast Fernandez only recalled hearing the screams. The wave had swept a woman overboard. There wasn’t time to think. He saw the body in the water. He jumped in. A spotlight highlighted the thrashing of the woman about 25 yards away. She was struggling to stay afloat. “Stupid big waves” Fernandez later remarked, continued to roll in. Raising and dropping the two of them sometimes two or three stories with each cycle. He managed to reach her. She grabbed on to his left shoulder. It was at this moment he noticed who the woman was. She was his mother.
At the age of 15, Jose Fernandez saved his mother’s life.
The group finally made it to the Mexican coast. This meant very little though. In Mexico there was no leniency for making it to land like there was in America. If you were a Cuban defector, you were sent back. End of story. So the group had to continue hiding from detection. They stayed in a mansion with dozens of other defectors. It was the trafficker’s house. The false documents took time to be made.
After a little more than a week in the house the group boarded a bus. Hours into the bus ride the bus slowed to a stop. Five people dressed in police uniforms walked alongside. He we go again. One by one they pulled the Cubans off. They lined them up and eyeballed them. They took whatever they wanted. Jewelry, hats, shoes, etc. The group sensed the end of their run. They were OK with going back to Cuba. They weren’t OK with dying though. With automatic rifles at their sides, the officers screamed at them. Demanding to see their papers. The Cubans seized up in terror. But just when all hope seemed lost, they were put back on the bus and on their way again. It never seemed real. Fernandez would later ask his relatives if that actually happened or if it was just something his mind had constructed.
The bus crossed into Texas soon after. They went through the processing. The papers were looked at and they were on their way. It was insanely simple. They had done it. They had escaped Cuba. They were in America. A dream fulfilled. Joy engulfed the group. They cautiously danced as to not draw attention.
They were free.
Fernandez was infectious. He lit up more than just every room or stadium he walked into. He lit up one of the brightest cities in America. His smile elicited accompanying smiles from everybody. Take this clip with All-Star Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki as a brief example of his joy, skill, and exuberance in both the game and life.
Since the fatal accident on Sunday, we have further found out that a bag washed up on shore a mile from the crash. The bag was filled with Jose Fernandez autographed baseballs. It turns out that Jose would often carry around this bag so that he would always have a ball to give to a kid no matter where he was or what he was doing. Think about that. 24 years old and that aware of his impact. That’s powerful. That’s special.
Fernandez also felt it was vitally important to learn the English language. In Miami it is easy to get by with just Spanish, but he knew that if he was to have the relationships in life, whether it be with teammates, fans, or sponsors, that his ability to speak the native language would be crucial. Within just a few years of being in the States he was nearly fluent.
An Unshakable Bond
Jose Fernandez was everything you look for in a superstar. His death was a loss for all of us. It also serves as a sharp reminder that, like a game of baseball, we don’t have a clock ticking down reminding us how much longer we have left. Putting off your good deeds until tomorrow won’t serve as your legacy. Do what you can in your short time in this world to make it a better place. Only one person can write your life story. Write something to be proud of.
Rest in Peace Jose Fernandez.