José Fernández died in a boating accident early this morning. He was a lot of things to a lot of people. First and foremost, he was Cuban. Cuban baseball players turn up frequently enough in the United States that we sort of discount how hard it must be for them to get here, from the island. We should not do that, as it is extraordinarily difficult. It is a journey that most people born in this country likely have no way of comprehending, and so we don’t try to. But Fernandez’s journey started there.
José Fernández was a prisoner. After his stepfather succeeded on his 14th try to defect from Cuba, he would eventually earn enough money for Fernández and his mother to try. Caught, Fernández would spend time in a Cuban jail among murderers, his only crime trying to leave Cuba, to pursue a better life. As a 14-year-old. From a 2013 profile by Grantland’s Jordan Ritter Conn:
He doesn’t ever want to think about the food again — “I have no idea how I would even describe it in English,” he says, “but believe me, you don’t want to know.” He tries not to remember all those bodies cramped into so little space. And he doesn’t let his mind dwell on the inmate killings. “To them, their lives were already over,” Fernández says. “What did it matter to them if they killed you? That’s just one more murder.”
José Fernández was a son. When he finally successfully did escape the undercover Cuban agents and police whose job it is to turn back defectors, his journey was just beginning. Again, from Ritter Conn:
And then he remembers the splash. He heard it one night while he was making small talk with the captain. After the splash, he heard the screams. A wave had crashed over the boat’s deck and swept Fernández’s mother out to sea. He saw her body and before he had time to think, he jumped in. A spotlight shone on the water, and Fernández could make out his mother thrashing in the waves about 60 feet from the boat. She could swim, but just barely, and as Fernández pushed his way toward her, he spat out salty water with almost every stroke. Waves — “stupid big,” he says — lifted him to the sky, then dropped him back down. When he reached his mother he told her, “Grab my back, but don’t push me down. Let’s go slow, and we’ll make it.” She held his left shoulder. With his right arm — his pitching arm — he paddled. Fifteen minutes later, they reached the boat. A rope dropped, and they climbed aboard. For now, at least, they were going to be OK.
José Fernández was going to be a father. As Emma Baccellieri noted over at Deadspin this morning, Fernández had announced to the world not even a week ago that his girlfriend was expecting. Now, that child will grow up without his or her biological father.
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