Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, a Cuban defector who swiftly became one of the brightest young stars in baseball, died early Sunday in a Miami boating accident. He was 24.
The Marlins canceled Sunday’s scheduled game against the Atlanta Braves.
“The Miami Marlins organization is devastated by the tragic loss of Jose Fernandez,” the club said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this very difficult time.”
Fernandez was one of three people killed when the accident occurred at around 3:15 a.m. EDT.
“They found a boat that was up against the jetties,” Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Todd Garofalo told WSVN. “They did do an initial search and they found three victims — two on top of the water, one underneath the boat and they had unfortunately passed away.”
Lorenzo Veloz of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission confirmed that, telling reporters mid-morning that the 32-foot SeaVee was traveling full speed when it struck the rocks, according to the AP. There was no evidence of alcohol or illegal substances and none of the three, he added, was wearing a life vest.
“It does appear that speed was involved due to the impact and the severity of it,” Veloz said. “It does appear to be that they were coming at full speed when they encountered the jetty, and the accident happened.”
The boat was owned by a friend of Fernandez’s who “is very well connected with several Marlins players,” Veloz said. “… I have stopped that boat before for safety inspections with other Marlins players on board. We know that this boat knows the area. We just can’t answer why this happened.”
Veloz added that Fernandez appeared to have died from the impact of the crash and not from drowning, Veloz told USA Today. Toxicology tests will be conducted at autopsy by the Miami medical examiner.
At a press conference early Sunday afternoon at Marlins Park in Miami, the entire Miami team gathered wearing their game jerseys as team president David Samson addressed the media. Samson said the club’s lead security officials called Michael Hill, the team’s president of baseball operations, just before 7 a.m. because law enforcement had reported the accident to the team. Samson and Hill reached Manager Don Mattingly within about 45 minutes, and all three appeared nearly broken as they sat at a table to address the tragedy.
“There are no words to describe how this organization feels,” Samson said. “Jose is someone someone we have known since he was a drafted young man. I think when you talk about a tragedy like this, there are no words that come to mind. There’s no playbook.”
Samson said team officials met with the players at around 10:30 a.m. and shared stories. Asked how he would remember Fernandez, Mattingly could barely speak through his sobs.
“When I think about Jose, it’s going to be thinking about a little kid,” Mattingly said. “I see such a little boy in him when — the way he played, there was just joy with him when he played and when he pitched, I think that’s what the guys would say too.
“As bad as he would make you [look] with some of the stuff he would do , you just see that little kid when you see when you watch kids play Little League or something like that. That’s the joy that Jose played with and the passion he felt about playing. That’s what I think of.”
Third baseman Martin Prado, a veteran who joined the Marlins last year, was the only player to speak. He was asked about the prospect of playing the Mets on Monday, a game that will go on as scheduled, Samson said.
“It’s not a tomorrow, it’s not a day after tomorrow,” Prado said. “We’re not robots. We’re humans. And he made an impact on every single person on this team, in different ways. I understand that the fact that we got to play games and we got to be professional about it, but all I can say is there’s a lot of pain. In some way we’re going to overcome that, but right now it’s something that it’s hard to explain.”
Fernandez’s death shook the rest of baseball as it heads into the final week of the regular season. Several clubs, including the Washington Nationals, issued statements offering their condolences.
“All of Baseball is shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of Miami Marlins pitcher José Fernández,” Commissioner Robert Manfred said in a statement. “He was one of our game’s great young stars who made a dramatic impact on and off the field since his debut in 2013. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, the Miami Marlins organization and all of the people he touched in his life.”
Current and former players also took to social media in an effort to convey the young star’s love for both his craft and the competition.
“Jose Fernandez is one of the most genuine guys I’ve ever played with,” retired pitcher Dan Haren, briefly a teammate with Fernandez in Miami, tweeted Sunday morning. “He loved life, he loved baseball. …. [H]e will be missed dearly.”
Last week Fernandez had posted an Instagram photo of a pregnant woman, with the words: “I’m so glad you came into my life. I’m ready for where this journey is gonna take us together. #familyfirst”
Fernandez made his major league debut only three years ago, but he immediately made an impact on the game both with his electric repertoire of pitches and his effervescent personality. As a rookie in 2013, he became an all-star, and was immediately identified not just as part of the Marlins’ promising young core – joining slugger Giancarlo Stanton and others – but as a player who could become a central character for his sport over the course of a generation.
Fernandez owned a high-90s fastball and a devastating slider that he mixed with a changeup and occasional curveball. The combination could be nearly unhittable, and he combined them with a competitive swagger that could be imposing. Several opposing players and executives said, over the course of his career, that Fernandez was the one pitcher they would least like to face in a crucial game.
Fernandez grew up in Cuba and was jailed three times after failed attempts to defect. He eventually succeeded in coming to the U.S. in a harrowing boat trip, during which his mother fell overboard and had to be rescued. He settled with his family in Tampa, where he played high school baseball.
The Marlins selected him with the 14th pick in the 2011 draft, and he was almost immediately dominant. Playing at two levels of Class A in 2012, he went 14-1 with a 1.75 ERA with 158 strikeouts in 134 innings. The following year, when two other starting pitchers were injured, he made the Marlins out of spring training, and his only trip to the minors thereafter came to rehabilitate an injury.
Fernandez’s 2013 season, in which he went 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA and struck out 187 hitters in 178-2/3 innings, ranks among the best for a pitcher that young in the history of the sport. He won the National League rookie of the year award and finished third in the Cy Young voting behind veterans Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright.
Fernandez made only eight starts in 2014 before injuring his right elbow and undergoing Tommy John surgery. He didn’t pitch again in the majors until July 2015. Fully healthy heading into this season, he completely re-established his form and became an all-star again.
Fernandez’s last start came Tuesday against the Washington Nationals, and he was vintage Fernandez – eight innings of three-hit ball in which he struck out 12 and walked none in a 1-0 Miami victory. He went 16-8 with a 2.86 ERA and 253 strikeouts in 182-1/3 innings this season, and he finished his career at 38-17 with a 2.58 ERA, averaging 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings.
The Marlins are due to finish the season next weekend in Washington.
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