Neal, Alonso mourn their friend Fernandez

Athletics' pitcher, first baseman recall special connection

Neal, Alonso mourn their friend Fernandez

OAKLAND -- A's pitcher Zach Neal vividly recalls watching Minor League teammate Jose Fernandez and telling his dad of the young phenom, still just 19 years old at the time, "This guy is the real deal."

Neal marveled at him; then, and especially now, speaking in the past tense in the A's clubhouse Sunday morning following the shocking news of Fernandez's death. The beloved Marlins pitcher, 24, was killed in a boating accident in Miami Beach earlier in the morning, stunning the baseball world.

"He's been one of the best," said a tearful Neal, who, like Fernandez, was drafted by the Marlins. "For him to be gone so soon is so sad."

His impact widespread, transcending the game, Fernandez seemingly reached every corner of every clubhouse. Countryman Yonder Alonso, like many, felt a special closeness with the affable Fernandez. The two sporadically saw each other each offseason -- sharing exchanges at high school alumni games and charity events -- when not squaring off as opponents.

Alonso, the A's first baseman, woke early to news of Fernando's passing and said, "I was in shock. I'm still in shock."

"What you saw on the mound was a reflection of a guy who had a lot of fun," Alonso said. "He really wore that Marlins uniform the right way. He really bled his colors that he wore every day and took pride in being from Miami and playing for his home.

"He would come in to the room and everyone knew he was in the room. Never big leagued anybody. He would say hi to everybody. He would talk to you about hitting, because he felt like he was the best hitter, and he could talk you about pitching, because he thought he was the best pitcher."

Alonso, who arrived in Miami from Cuba at nine years old, especially understands the hurt and sadness suffocating South Florida.

"Miami really leaned on a guy like this," Alonso said. "That's a blow to that team, it's a blow to the city, it's a blow to everybody. It's bad. It's tough. It's a shocking thing, because he's 24 years old. It's a big-time shock."

Fernandez was in San Diego two years ago when he learned he needed Tommy John surgery, confiding in then-Padre Alonso before most everyone else. Alonso said he told him, "Get it done now. You're young, you're gonna be lights-out."

"He was like, 'Yeah, I'm gonna be better than I was,'" Alonso said. "And he was. He was better now, somehow, than he already was."

A two-time All-Star, Fernandez was enjoying a remarkable season, pitching to a 2.86 ERA with 253 strikeouts in 182 1/3 innings.

"This is one of the great talents and great entertainers in the game," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "I don't know him personally, but there will be heavy hearts around baseball today because of the impact he had. You could just feel it, sense it. You could tell he loved to be out there and loved to pitch and you really pull hard for guys that really enjoy the game. He did that immensely."

"I think he was just grateful to be here, and you could feel that every day," Neal said. "He was an awesome guy, and this is just terrible, terrible news.

"It feels like yesterday I was playing with him. It's just kind of an eerie, eerie feeling."

Jane Lee has covered the A's for since 2010. Follow her on Twitter @JaneMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.