When reports were confirmed on Sunday that Marlins pitcher José Fernandez had died at age 24 in a boating accident the night before, people responded in a peculiar way. I received text after text expressing condolences in a way that was indistinguishable from the expressions of sympathy that accompany the loss of a family member. All for someone I did not know, someone no one I know knew, and someone I saw pitch live only once. Absurdly, this did not seem like overkill. The raw expressions of grief that came from dozens of my friends, family, and acquaintances in Miami had relatively little to do with the fact that Fernandez was, by some measures, baseball’s best pitcher this year and was on a trajectory that perhaps would have ended in Cooperstown. Instead, we felt the loss so severely primarily because José’s was a story we Miamians know intimately, though most of us haven’t had to live it.
As kids, we heard horror stories about life amid the scarcities of Cuba caused by the Communist regime our families had fled decades before. We were told of desperate Cubans’ harrowing attempts to make the 90-mile crossing to Florida in all sorts of improvised and compromised watercraft. We knew very well the story of Elian Gonzalez, who, in 2000, was found by a fisherman off the Florida coast, having barely survived an escape attempt that had just claimed the life of his mother. Some of us had protested outside the home of Elian’s relatives after they resisted US Attorney General Janet Reno’s order that he be returned to his father in Cuba, leading to the boy’s forcible removal from the home.
When we heard that the Marlins had selected a pitcher in the first round of the MLB amateur draft (incidentally about Elian’s age) who had embarked on four separate escape attempts, had saved his mother from drowning on one try, had been jailed and shot at, and had finally made it ashore, we needed no additional motivation to adopt him as one of our own. When he grew into an ace, with an exuberance almost never seen or accepted in baseball circles, we couldn’t believe our luck.
But all in all, this is a narrative based more on dissimilarity than similarity, the hardships Fernandez had to endure juxtaposed with the ease of our own lives—a difference as stark as that between his phenomenal talent and our lack of it. It is another chapter in a decades-long tradition of excellent Cuban ballplayers risking life and limb to play professionally, to a degree perhaps seen nowhere else in sport. Inside the incredible tragedy of losing a player with such great potential at such a young age, there is a scintilla of hope.
In recent years, relations between Cuba and the United States have begun opening up in a way they haven’t in the past half-century. Although many members of the Cuban diaspora, including me, see nothing endearing about President Obama shaking hands with Raul Castro, there is something to be said for the opportunities that may soon be freely extended to the Cubans left on the island, separated in privilege from their American brethren only by the happenstance of their birthplace.
There will not be another José Fernandez, but right now there is likely an 8-year-old somewhere in Cuba who will someday develop a 98-mph fastball or become a five-tool center fielder. There is a chance, at least, that this child won’t need to risk his life to do what he loves. A chance that this child won’t have to cope with the incredible stress arising from a fear of government reprisals against parents and grandparents left on the island who benefit from remittances. A chance that he will bear less weight on his shoulders and thus will have fewer reasons to “blow off steam” as José did the night of his death.
That Fernandez’s unborn first child will be born with freedoms unknown to José for most of his life is but a minuscule consolation. However, there is true hope in the prospect that the days of embattled Cuban defectors could soon end. The coming wave of talent would do well to emulate the indomitable source of zeal and enthusiasm whom we have lost from the game and the world.
Jaime Alayon is a writer from Miami who is currently based in Philadelphia. You should follow him on Twitter.