All-Star Fernandez already realizing dream
Despite rapid ascent to stardom, Cuban defector's past still resonates
NEW YORK -- He does it every morning, this ritual of gazing deep into those brown eyes staring back at him in the mirror and reminding himself not just where he is, but who he is.
Jose Fernandez will wake Tuesday morning in Manhattan. At some point in the afternoon, he'll board a bus to Citi Field, then he'll don his Marlins uniform and doff his hat to the crowd when his name is called during the roster introductions. And whether or not his arm is summoned for duty in the 84th All-Star Game, this day will easily be the proudest yet in the burgeoning career of one of baseball's best young arms.
First, though, will be that appointment with the mirror. It's an appointment Fernandez never forgets.
Because for that moment each morning, Fernandez looks at himself and remembers the beloved grandmother he left behind in his native Cuba, the time he spent in jail after a failed attempt to flee his native land, the harrowing journey across the Gulf of Mexico in which he was nearly shot and his mother nearly drowned, and the hard work it took for a 15-year-old kid with a soft body and no feel for pitching to mold into a 20-year-old with true Major League ace potential.
Sure, every All-Star has his story of how he got to Citi Field, and every All-Star is excited to have ascended to one of baseball's brightest stages.
But to Fernandez, this moment means just a little more. Because those brown eyes have seen so much.
"I think," Fernandez said, "that what makes a player good is not out there on the field; it's who he is as a person. I know where I came from, and I know what I want."
He knew what he wanted as a teenager, when he made the difficult decision to leave Cuba, as his father, Ramon, had done. He knew he'd be leaving behind many family members, and he knew there was a good chance he'll never see them again. But he also knew the political and economic realities of his home country ran counter to the hopes and dreams he held in his heart. And those hopes and dreams, he reasoned, were worth dying for.
"You either make it or you die," he said. "It's simple."
Crossing those waters and escaping into Mexico was not simple. Fernandez unsuccessfully attempted the journey to Miami three times. The Coast Guard caught him each time, labeled him a "traitor to Castro" and threw him in jail, with each term of imprisonment longer than the one before. He missed his entire sophomore year of high school and was treated, he said, "like an animal," unsheltered from the rain or the sun and offered no change of clothes.
The dream to escape only became more fervent.
It was January 2008 when he boarded the speedboat that would carry him to freedom. Cuban soldiers peppered the boat with bullets as it sped from the shore, its inhabitants undaunted. It was somewhere on the Gulf, in the early hours of the morning, when Fernandez saw one of the boat's 11 other passengers -- a woman -- fall into the water. Instinctively, he jumped into the cold water and swam toward her.
It wasn't until he got close that he realized the woman was his mother, Maritza.
So, yes, being an All-Star, and having Maritza here with him to take in the experience, is a reality that, for Fernandez, is too impossible to put into words. His only wish is that his grandmother, Olga, who is still in Cuba, could be here to see it, too.
"She's everything," Fernandez said. "She's my life. It's pretty tough that she's in Cuba now and can't even be here to watch this game."
One guy who assuredly will be watching is Orlando Chinea, the pitching instructor who took Fernandez under his wing when the latter arrived to the States.
After crossing the waters into Mexico and busing to Hidalgo, Texas, where his father waited, Fernandez and his family settled in Tampa, Fla., where Jose enrolled at Alonso High School. Ramon was familiar with the work Chinea had done with Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, Livan Hernandez, Jose Contreras and Rolando Arrojo, among others. He wanted his son to have that same instruction, and so he reached out to Chinea upon arrival in Florida.
"I met Jose in May of 2008," Chinea says now. "He was 15 years old, 170 pounds, didn't speak no English, doesn't know nothing about baseball, about pitching."
They worked, Chinea said, "from Monday to Monday" for five hours a day, not just on Fernandez's mechanics and not just on the sinkerball that Chinea felt would be so important to his development, but also on the physical side. Chinea had him push a pickup truck uphill, chop trees with an axe, swim laps in the pool and throw a two-pound medicine ball up to 120 feet. And when he wasn't honing his baseball skills, Fernandez was amassing a 3.75 GPA in high school and learning what is now impeccable English.
That skinny kid quickly grew strong, both physically and mentally, and he also grew from the not-so-delicate way Chinea would address his mistakes.
"We butted heads sometimes," Fernandez said with a smile.
Chinea admits he was tough on the kid, but all for the better. He wanted Jose to become an artist on the mound, a pitcher who so fluidly blends strength and flexibility that he can throw any pitch at any time.
"I worked with Japanese pitchers in the '90s," Chinea explained. "So I know the Japanese philosophy about how to mix, how to work with the hitters. It's so different than America. In America, the power comes from the genes. In Japan, it's more about flexibility and stretching, like ballet."
The result is a young man not terribly unlike Japanese sensation Yu Darvish, in that Fernandez throws multiple variations of multiple pitches yet uses essentially the same arm angle. It's a deceptive approach that has allowed Fernandez to post an impressive 2.75 ERA and 8.9 strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate through 18 starts here in his rookie year.
That Fernandez is even in the big leagues this early, let alone an All-Star, is a shock. He was purportedly ticketed for Double-A when he arrived to Spring Training, but the Marlins, who took him out of high school with the 14th overall pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, sped up his timetable and gave him an Opening Day rotation spot.
"They had a plan for me, and the plan changed," Fernandez said. "I don't know how, but it did, and I got a chance to show them that I was ready to be in the big leagues."
These days, people far and wide are saying awfully nice things about Fernandez's future. He is part of a stunning surge of young starting talent in this 2013 season, and some have already labeled him an ace, the kind of special pitcher who can lead a team for years to come.
Chinea, though, is still hard on Fernandez, who calls him before and after every start and refers to him as "Jefe," or "Boss."
"He's not a special pitcher," Chinea said. "Not yet. I tell him, 'Keep hungry. Keep your mind sharp. America is the best country around the world, so try to respect everybody, try to follow the law, try to be a good citizen.' We try to reach for more, more, more. I always tell him he can get better. I think he can be the best Major League pitcher ever to come from Cuba."
Fernandez doesn't forget where he came from. How could he? Those daily gazes into the mirror don't let him forget.
And when he looks in the mirror Tuesday, he'll see an All-Star.