On the 20th of September in 2016, former Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez was having a day many can only dream of.
The same day he announced that his girlfriend was pregnant with the couple’s first child, he pitched eight innings of shutout baseball in a game he told teammates was the “best” he had ever pitched.
Just over 96 hours later, the 24-year-old pitching phenom and cultural hero to many in South Florida’s Cuban community and beyond was dead after a boating accident off Miami Beach. Investigators said Fernandez was legally drunk, had cocaine in his system and was behind the wheel when the boat crashed, overturned and killed all three people onboard.
The tragedy put a cloud over the life of a young man who was, at the time of his death, one of the best young stars in Major League Baseball, a survivor who had escaped communist Cuba as a teenager.
Fernandez’s struggle to reach American soil resonated with many in South Florida. Three previous defection attempts landed Fernandez in prison before the age of 15. A fourth attempt included saving his mother, who fell overboard, before reaching Mexico in 2007 and arriving in Florida one year later.
After a prep career at Tampa’s Alonso High School that included two state championships and just one loss his senior season, Fernandez was a first-round pick of the Marlins in June 2011. Less than two years later, he was starting in the big leagues as a 19-year-old.
In less than four seasons with the Marlins, Fernandez went 38-17 in 76 career starts with a 2.53 ERA and 589 strikeouts. He was the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2013, a two-time All-Star and someone who seemingly had the world in the palm of his fire throwing right hand.
His career – and his life – would come to an end in the early morning hours of September 25th, when the 32-foot boat Fernandez was piloting crashed into the jetty at Government Cut, the site of several fatal boat crashes that year alone.
Fernandez died on impact while 27-year-old Emilio Macias and 25-year-old Eduardo Rivero also died at the scene.
“I went to the ballpark the morning of the crash. We didn’t know what to expect,” said NBC 6 reporter Ari Odzer, who covered the story that day and in the days that followed. “A team representative came out to tell us there would be a news conference…it was not designed for a funeral, but that’s what it felt it when the players filled the space behind the microphone.”
Former team president David Samson addressed the media along with manager Don Mattingly. The Marlins’ game that day against the Atlanta Braves would be canceled as the community mourned.
“Here were professional athletes, the toughest of the tough, stars like Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich, in a state of absolute, crushing grief,” Odzer said.
The Marlins would return to action the following day, with all players wearing No. 16 jerseys to honor Fernandez. A public memorial was held September 28th and Fernandez’s ashes were scattered at sea October 2nd.
“When I think of that day, that scene always stays with me, along with the overwhelming feeling of loss and sadness,” Odzer added. “It was truly surreal, a tragedy which is still impacting the team and the community to this day.”
For the community, it was the loss of an immigrant who achieved the American dream in such a short time. For the Marlins, it began a downhill slide that saw the franchise finish a combined 89 games below .500 over the next three seasons.
Fernandez’s legacy would be tarnished somewhat when Miami-Dade County investigators released a final report on the incident in March 2017. The report stated that speed played a factor in the crash, with Fernandez’s blood alcohol content being nearly twice the legal limit.
Claims with the estates of Macias and Rivero were settled two years later, with a lawyer for Fernandez denying toxicology reports showing cocaine was in his system at the time of the crash.
In the years that have followed, a now four-year-old girl named Penelope has had to grow up without her father.
“Even though he can’t see her, I know that wherever he is, he is watching over her and protecting her,” Maritza Gomez-Fernandez, Fernandez’s mother said on the one-year anniversary of the crash in 2017. “Anything she needs to know, I will be there to tell her because I am the best person to tell her father’s story.”
All the while, both fans of the Marlins and those living in the South Florida community have had the same question: what if the events of September 25, 2016 had been different?
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