Photo: Courtesy MCT Campus

Column: Baseball failed to recognize Jose Fernandez's cultural importance

On his fourth and final defection attempt from Cuba, a 15-year-old Jose Fernandez plunged head first into treacherous waters to save an unknown woman who had been knocked overboard from his boat. It wasn't until he reached her that he learned he had just saved the life of his own mother. 

In a warped twist of fate, baseball fans woke up Sunday to the news that the Miami Marlins' superstar pitcher had died in a boating accident off Miami Beach. Two other bodies were recovered. In his moment of need, no one was there to save him. 

A Coast Guard boat first sighted Fernandez's overturned boat at 3:30 a.m.  Ironically, it was those same Coast Guard patrol boats that Fernandez once looked to avoid at all costs. He was caught in his first three attempts to leave communist Cuba and sentenced to jail three times before turning 16. 

"When you see those lights, you know it's over," Fernandez once said in regards to his failed defection attempts, speaking specifically of seeing the patrol boat lights just before reaching American soil.

After he finally arrived in the U.S., getting to the major leagues and establishing himself as a generational star was essentially a cakewalk. The right-hander was drafted by the Marlins in 2011 and bypassed two minor league levels to join the Marlins' rotation in 2013. In his rookie campaign, he posted a 2.19 ERA and won the NL Rookie of the Year Award. 

I don't think it would be hyperbole to suggest that Jose Fernandez could have gone on to be the greatest pitcher ever.

He suffered yet another roadblock in his career when he tore his ulnar collateral ligament in 2014 and rehabbed for over 13 months before returning late in 2015. 

The bottom line is that baseball fans really didn't get to see a lot of Jose Fernandez, but what we did see was incredible. On a per-inning basis, only Rangers All-Star Yu Darvish has struck out more batters than Fernandez in the history of major league starting pitchers.

He had just turned 24. He was still maturing as an athlete. He was getting better.  

Pitching was the easy part. Baseball was fun after all that he had gone through; his infectious trademark smile was evidence of that. I have never seen a player show more raw emotion on the diamond than Fernandez. 

Fernandez shouldn't be remembered for merely his pitching, though. He should be remembered as a great ambassador for the game. Pitching in Miami — a city whose fibers are woven together by its Latin-American heritage — Fernandez's starts were appointment viewing in a sport that structurally de-emphasizes individual stars. After his return in 2015, he put just under 5,000 more fans in the ballpark in his home starts for the remainder of the season. 

Fernandez suffered the oppression and despair that is associated with Fidel Castro's regime, but more importantly he was a beacon of hope for Cuban-Americans in the evolving state of U.S. and Cuban relations. Major League Baseball has elected to take a diplomatic role in repairing those relationships over a shared national pastime, and no player was better equipped to serve as a leader in that role than Fernandez was. 

Pitching in the city of Miami with such an electric persona and fastball, in addition to the shared experience of oppression and struggle that links him to so many of his fans, I would be hard-pressed to think of another athlete alive today who is more important to the cultural identity of a city or a community. 

Fernandez's sudden death leaves us with a kind of heartbreak that we are not accustomed to dealing with in sports. Professional sports are an entertainment industry. We watch them to get away from real-world issues. The heartbreak of losing such a transcendent talent like Fernandez is a completely different emotion than the feeling endured when your team is knocked out of the playoffs. I can't help but feel guilty for wanting to shut this tragic news out. This isn't what I signed up for, but it is in fact very real. 

I think we failed to realize Fernandez's brilliance during his all-too-short life. He shouldn't have to have been martyrized for us to really recognize his immense talent and sacrifice. Because of his youth, we took for granted the time we would have with him to recognize his true significance. Fernandez had already done so much; he didn't need to wait for us to realize his value as an athlete or his potential to be a cultural ambassador for the game. For the first time in his life, he was allowed to just focus on one thing: pitching. 

Both the league and its fans were blind when it came to recognizing just how bright Fernandez's light shined.



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