Miami a perfect home for rookie phenom Fernandez
Cuban star has found comfort on the mound, in the city while living out dream
MIAMI -- The wind whistles on the balcony high above the waterfront apartment building where Jose Fernandez goes to clear his mind after games.
From here, the tennis courts at Margaret Pace 47 floors below seem as small as Legos. The rollerbladers look like ants and the palm trees are the size of bonsais. The bay's turquoise water gives way to the bustling metropolis, its people, its culture and its famous nightlife.
Throwing fastballs and sliders from the mound at Marlins Park might be where Fernandez feels the most comfortable. But leaning on the railing outside his two-bedroom place overlooking Miami is a close second.
For all of its outward beauty, the panoramic vista inspires an introspective view for the young man. There, Fernandez ponders where he came from and where he wants to go.
"This view is beautiful," Fernandez, 21, said one recent morning. "The air feels so good. You can see the beaches, and at night, you can see the lights of the entire city. That's where the Miami Heat play over there. You see that building right there? That's where Tony Perez lives. He's a Cuban legend. Everybody knows who he is."
It hasn't taken long for Fernandez to make a name for himself. He's the Marlins' hope for the future, and he's the biggest attraction in the Little Havana neighborhood that surrounds the stadium. But first of all, he is "Delfin," the son of Maritza and grandson of Olga, who is back in Cuba. He is also a survivor who made it all the way from the small island to the big leagues and is now one of the favorites for the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
Delfin is Fernandez's middle name, given to him by his own hero.
"My mother and grandmother are the most important people in my life," Fernandez said. "It's like I have two mothers. I've learned so much from them, and I'll always be grateful for the lessons they have taught me. I am humble and who I am because of them."
Maritza, who still lives in Tampa, Fla., makes sure her son stays grounded. She visits him often on the road and stays with him at home. She is his biggest fan and was there when "Delfin" put on his first Little League uniform when he was 4 years old.
"In Cuba, the streets are made with dirt, and I was always pitching rocks, and I carried a wooden stick all the time with me, hitting stones," Fernandez recalled, sitting on a white leather couch in his living room. "I think it's something that came naturally for me, since no one else in my family was so inclined into the game. It was something that no one taught me and I just liked a lot. Baseball means everything to me."
As a child, Fernandez fantasized about the big leagues. As a teenager, he tried to make those dreams come true and made three unsuccessful attempts at escaping Cuba. He was jailed each time. Fernandez finally succeeded in January 2008, when he left on a speed boat with 12 other people, including Maritza, headed for the Gulf of Mexico as Cuban soldiers fired on them. He dove into the water during the perilous trip to Mexico to save his mother, who had accidentally fallen out of the boat.
"It was tough, I had to learn and see things I shouldn't have seen and learned about," he said. "Those things happen in life for a reason. The best thing about it is that I learned a lot from that."
The Fernandezes made their way to Texas and eventually settled in Tampa. Soon after, a pitching instructor named Orlando Chinea helped transform Fernandez from a scrawny 15-year-old into the Marlins' ace -- and one of the top pitchers in the big leagues.
The Marlins selected Fernandez out of high school with the 14th overall pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. He was supposed to start this season in Double-A, but the Marlins sped up his timetable. The rest is history.
"The way of life in Cuba is completely different," Fernandez said. "For example, I used to ride a bike there. Now, I drive a car -- that's amazing. I've learned to live dealing with so many struggles, trying to make ends meet and not having a lot of material things. Sometimes, I had to depend on so many things I couldn't control. It was so different, and here in America you have a lot more opportunities. This is, without a doubt, the best country in the world."
Fernandez has made the most of his opportunities and has had a phenomenal season for a pitcher of any age. The All-Star leads all NL rookie pitchers in numerous categories and sports a 10-5 record with a 2.30 ERA in 25 starts. He has struck out 165 batters in 152 2/3 innings so far this season and won the NL Player of the Week Award for the second time this season earlier this week.
Fernandez has gone 8-2 with a 1.52 ERA and 113 strikeouts in 100 1/3 innings since June 1, but his season will soon end. Miami will shut down Fernandez, who is scheduled to pitch Friday in Atlanta, as a precaution after he reaches 170 innings, which likely will occur after two more starts.
"He has weapons," Marlins manager Mike Redmond said of Fernandez. "He makes his pitches, [they] are getting better, his changeup is getting better, and he's improving in the way he uses his stuff. There will be adjustments for him to make as the league starts to see him more and more. But at the same time, he studies hitters and has a game plan. That's what we all love about him."
Fernandez knows how well he is doing, but he doesn't dwell on his accomplishments when he's alone on his balcony. Sometimes, he closes his eyes and recalls his life in Cuba.
"It was a tough decision, because I had to leave all my relatives there, especially my grandmother, whom I love immensely," he said. "Thank God, I came here. I worked very hard and started from the bottom up. I'm now going onward and upward."
Fernandez is certainly on the move. The lease to his waterfront apartment will end in a few days, and he's going to finish the season living out of the team hotel. The balcony -- his peaceful place high above the city -- will no longer be his. The feelings of comfort, however, will remain.
In Miami, Fernandez has found a home, a place he always wanted. The view is everything he imagined.