By Nicholas Bethlenfalvy
Three weeks ago, José Fernández was on top of the baseball world. He was a two-time All-Star and an NL Rookie of the Year Award winner. His stellar 2016 season had him among the favourites to win the Cy Young Award, which goes to the best pitcher in each league. In short, he was one of the game’s elite pitchers. Many experts predicted that he had only given us a glimpse of his full potential. In addition to his already accomplished career, they believed that his best was yet to come. With such a bright future ahead of him, José Fernández was poised for great things. That is, until tragedy struck.
Fernández was born in Santa Clara, Cuba on July 31, 1992. When a professional baseball career seemed imminent, he and his family desired an escape to America. This resulted in three unsuccessful attempts to defect, each leading to prison time. When they successfully defected in 2007, near-disaster ensued. While looking out from their boat, Fernández’s mother fell overboard due to turbulent waves. José heard screaming; his immediate reaction was to dive in the water. Fernández saved his mother’s life.
After arriving in America, he was drafted by the Miami Marlins as the 14th overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft. A successful minor league stint had him touted as the fifth best prospect in all of baseball prior to his Major League debut. José managed to live up to the hype as he was voted the top rookie in the National League for the 2013 campaign. Despite being injury-plagued for the better part of the next two years, he bounced back emphatically in 2016. Not only was he named to the All-Star game, he also won 16 games with a 2.86 ERA and an MLB-leading 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
On September 20th, Fernández started against the Washington Nationals, the second-best team in Major League Baseball during the regular season. Eight flawless innings ensued as he allowed no runs and struck out 12 batters. In the locker room following the game, José told teammate Martín Prado that it was, “the best game I have ever pitched.” No one could imagine that it would be the last game he would ever pitch.
Then came September 25th, 2016: a date that avid baseball fans will never forget. Fernández had been urging several friends to join him in cruising the waters of South Beach on his speed boat named Kaught Looking-at 1:00 a.m.
An intriguing element to this story is that Fernández was reportedly upset that night following an argument with his girlfriend. “He was stressed and wanted to go out”, according to a friend. The couple was set to have a baby girl which José wanted to name Penelope. Through the lens of a baseball fan, Fernández had the reputation of being a buoyant and ebullient character. This notion may have been different on the inside. A sense of worry could have overcome him. Maybe he did not feel ready to be a father. This anxiety may have been the leading contributor to his irrational decisions. While the precursors and details of the story are still unknown, the one conclusion that can be drawn is that Fernández was not in the right frame of mind to go out in his boat at that hour.
Many of his closest friends declined this offer. They were worried.
Marcell Ozuna was Fernández’s best friend on the Miami Marlins. That night, he exhorted Fernandez that the idea was bound for disaster. Fernández did not listen.
Will Bernal was also sceptical of their plan. Several hours prior to the boat ride, he exchanged a number of texts with a friend of his who was set to join José. The text messages can be found here. Bernal was well aware of the dangers of the late night excursion. Although he tried persuading his friend as best he could, the situation was intractable.
At 1:00 a.m., José and two of his friends met at American Social, a waterfront pub along the Miami river. While it is believed that no alcohol was consumed, specifics on the toxicology of the three men have yet to emerge.
Although this could have served as the moment when Fernández and his friends realized the extent of the danger they were embarking on, they set out to the ocean.
At 3:00 a.m., a Miami Beach cop heard a loud and prominent noise. The moment that so many close friends had feared became a reality- a collision. The U.S. Coast Guard found a boat that had crashed into a jetty. Indeed, it was Kaught Looking, and sadly, the crash was fatal. Here is a photo of the wreckage. The general consensus is that the boat was travelling far too fast.
The aftermath of the collision was pure agony from those closest to Fernández and the two other victims. Some words used by friends and relatives to describe their feelings on the tragedy: “sickening,” “goosebumps,” “sorrow,” “heartache,” and “disgust.”
A public memorial and funeral procession was held three days later for Fernández in Miami. His ashes were dispersed in the sea.
The José Fernández story is a reminder that we all must be careful and listen to others if something seems perilous. Even more, as tragic as it was, it epitomizes the dangers that professional athletes face when presented with a profusion of money. While fame may seem like a promising lifestyle to most of us, we sometimes forget the great responsibility and expectation that comes with it.
José’s girlfriend, Maria Arias, has yet to comment on the story. One can only begin to envision the grief and devastation that has overcome the Fernández family. His mother wanted so badly for her son to fulfill his dreams. While his career was already enormously accomplished, he had only scratched the surface of his potential.
As for the Miami Marlins, they have retired Fernández’s uniform number, No. 16, in his honour.
The story continues to be filled with mystifying holes. We may never know what truly happened to José Fernández. One thing is for sure, 2016 has been filled with far too many tragedies. From Muhammed Ali to Gordie Howe to Arnold Palmer and now José Fernández, the world has been confounded with the loss of prominent athletes this year.
José Fernández was a special talent. Despite all the hardships he endured in Cuba, his greatest enemy was the water. After being in a vulnerable mental state, one poor decision resulted in tragedy. He was destined to accomplish great things on and off the baseball diamond. In my opinion, José Fernández was the future of the game of baseball. And so, a question that is far too common in professional sports is asked once again: what could have been? Fernández was just 24 years old.