As you know by now, Jose Fernandez tragically passed away early Sunday morning in a boating accident. The 24-year-old pitcher was one of baseball’s brightest lights and news of his death rocked the sports world. One of a group of young superstars the sport was building its future around, Fernandez had made a huge impact on the game in a short time. He was also an immigrant, someone who fulfilled the promise of what America can provide to those seeking a better life. Fernandez was the epitome of the American dream.
In the midst of an election cycle where opinions of what makes someone truly “American” are flying left and right, it may seem odd that a Cuban-born baseball player who only became a citizen 17 months ago could stand for everything good about the United States of America. But he did just that.
Fernandez grew up in Santa Clara, Cuba in a country buried by years of authoritarian rule and under the ever-watching eyes of Fidel and Raul Castro. Before he ever made it to the United States, Fernandez attempted to join his stepfather — who had defected and arrived in Florida in 2005 — unsuccessfully three times. Each failed attempt resulted in prison time.
Fernandez was just 14 years old and locked in prison for months at a time with the worst criminals in the country. He was surrounded by murderers and rapists solely because he wanted a better life.
Finally, Jose and his family were able to escape the bonds of the Castros and their island in 2007.
During their fateful journey away from their home and towards Mexico, Fernandez heard a splash and realized one of his fellow defectors had fallen out of the boat. Despite the turbulent seas, the 15-year-old instinctively dove into the water, swam 60 feet away from the boat, and rescued the fellow passenger. He only later realized that it was his mother’s life he had saved.
On Sunday Matt Gaetz, a Republican member of the Florida House of Representatives, tweeted the following:
This is the part where I tell you Gaetz is a supporter of Donald Trump, and he has previously claimed illegal immigrants are “sucking us dry,” and his campaign website warns of a “Trojan horse” attack by Syrian refugees. Yes, Fernandez risked his life to come to America illegally, simply hoping for something better once he arrived. This country welcomed him because it was the right thing to do. If Gaetz and his ilk had their druthers, Fernandez’s family would likely still be in Cuba.
Fernandez and his family eventually settled in Tampa, Florida, joining his stepfather. He attended Braulio Alonso High School and became a baseball sensation. He led the team to state championships during his sophomore and senior seasons, posting a 13-1 record with a 2.35 ERA, 134 strikeouts and two no-hitters in his final prep year. The Marlins selected him with the 14th pick in the 2011 MLB Draft and changed his life.
I could reel off Fernandez’s achievements in baseball, but this isn’t that kind of column. Yeah, he was a two-time All-Star and the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year. Sure, his strikeout numbers were incredible for his age and he became the youngest Opening Day starter since Dwight Gooden in 2014. He overcame Tommy John surgery in 2014 and came back as strong as ever a year later. That stuff is great, but it doesn’t matter here.
Fernandez wasn’t one of baseball’s brightest stars because of his immense talent. No, it was his personality that lit up stadiums. When Jose was on the mound it was always a must-see event. His electric fastballs were impressive, but his 10,000-watt smile was just as thrilling. His post-strikeout stare-downs and fist-pumps had become a staple of the big leagues. He was clearly a guy who loved his job. After all, no one was more keenly aware of what his life could have been had he never found baseball or his new home.
Last Tuesday, Fernandez announced that his girlfriend, Carla Mendoza, was pregnant. While that adds another sad layer to this tale, it also provides further proof of what this country can give to a family. Fernandez and Mendoza’s child will be born an American citizen and have a better life thanks to what he went through.
Fernandez’s story may have ended terribly, but his life was not a tragedy. His is the uplifting, inspirational tale of a young man who overcame so much to achieve greatness and a better life for his family. He succeeded beyond any measure, regardless of how young he was when he left us.
Fernandez elected to put himself through untold horrors just to set foot in the United States and be welcomed. Right now there are millions like him all around the world hoping to be afforded the same opportunity. They may not look or talk like us, they may not believe what we believe or sound like we sound, but they’re looking for the same thing we all are: a chance to prosper and live in peace.
In 1630 as the Arbella sailed to New England, John Winthrop urged the Massachusetts Bay colonists to create a place that would be “as a city upon a hill.” That phrase expanded on a line from the book of Matthew, when Jesus said during the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.” That image has represented what eventually became the United States of America for more than 240 years. If we want to be the shining example for the world, we can’t hide from those who seek warmth from our brightness.
Fernandez and his family came to America seeking a chance at a better life. Through hard work and his natural talent, he was able to provide that for them. They were what this country is supposed to be all about.
Jose Fernandez was the American dream. He lived it and became the best of what his adopted country could produce. Only in America could his story be told and believed.
Let’s hope that never changes.