Fernandez fondly recalled by fellow Cubans

Impact of All-Star's passing felt across MLB, Miami and Cuba

Fernandez fondly recalled by fellow Cubans

The barrage of text messages woke up Padres outfielder Jon Jay at his California home long before the sun rose. Across the country in Florida, the cellphone of former Marlins pitcher Livan Hernandez was fielding non-stop calls.

At first, Hernandez thought it must have been a cruel joke. Then, he turned on the television. On the other coast, Jay was stunned and confused, even after he began to soak in the news he read from the screen of his smartphone.

The tragic news of Jose Fernandez's death spread quickly across the pitcher's two beloved countries, whose relations have grown closer over the past year -- the United States and Cuba. The reaction was the same: Disbelief. Sadness.

Fernandez died early Sunday in a boating accident in Miami Beach. He was 24.

Fernandez grew up in Cuba, where many streets are made of dirt. He pitched rocks and carried a wooden stick "all the time," to hit the stones, he told MLB.com in 2013. When he was 15, he boarded a boat and defected, because he "wanted to try things out and I wanted to prove to my family that I was going to pitch in the Major Leagues," he said during that interview in Miami.

He left behind his family, -- including his beloved grandmother, who eventually would join him in the U.S. Their reunification in the Marlins clubhouse touched the hearts of millions of fans, who embraced his life, and passion for the game.

"We are both [from] ... Santa Clara [in Cuba], and this one really hurts," said Hernandez, who defected from Cuba in 1995 and later won a World Series with the Marlins in 1997. "Nobody wants to believe it's true, because it's such an incredible loss and he was such a happy young man -- always smiling. I feel for his family, his mother and his grandmother, who were always at the games. I can't imagine how they are feeling, but I am praying for them."

Jay, who is of Cuban descent and grew up in Miami, had hoped to go fishing with Fernandez sometime during the offseason. The Marlins pitcher was a constant presence at Jay's charity events in the Miami area, and the pair had become good friends.

"It's a loss for the baseball community and a loss the Latino community -- especially the community in Miami," Jay said. "It's just sad, shocking. He really did appreciate life and had an understanding of all he endured to leave Cuba and [come] to the United States."

D-backs outfielder Yasmany Tomas, who left Cuba in 2014, was told the news by Arizona coach Ariel Prieto early Sunday morning. Orlando Chinea, one of Fernandez's first pitching coaches, was Prieto's coach in Cuba.

"It's a big loss for Cubans, because he was one of us and he was from our country," Tomas said in Spanish. "He was a player that was loved in Miami, the United States and Cuba. Things in life are hard to explain. You really don't know how much time you have here."

Astros infielder Yulieski Gurriel, who defected from Cuba in February, had known Fernandez since the pitcher was a little boy. Fernandez and Gurriel's younger brother, Lourdes, played youth league baseball together back on the island.

"This is not just a loss for Cuba, this is a loss for the entire world -- and we have lost one of the best pitchers Major League Baseball has ever seen," Yulieski said in Spanish. "My heart and my condolences go out to his family."

There have been close to 200 players from Cuba who have played in the Major Leagues, and almost 100 since Fidel Castro took over the country in 1961. Fernandez was one of the best.

"My grandpa, he's in Puerto Rico, has been out of Cuba for over 40 years and the same way he talks about Yasiel [Puig] he talks about Jose," said Dodgers outfielder Enrique Hernandez, who was a teammate of Fernandez in 2014. "To have an effect like that on an entire country and sport just shows what kind of talent and person he was. My grandpa said it was amazing to watch, that one kid could just paralyze an entire country when he pitched. The country stopped and watched."

Puig, who defected from Cuba in 2012, was close friends with the pitcher and said Fernandez was one of the first people he got to know after he arrived in the U.S. On Sunday, Puig recalled an evening a couple of weeks ago, when the two friends sat down for dinner in Miami.

Losing Fernandez, a fellow countryman, is surreal, he said.

"He was a very good guy, and I also liked the way he played baseball -- the way he treated his mom, his grandma, his teammates and other ballplayers like myself."

Fernandez's death comes as relations between Cuba and the United States continue to improve. Last December, Jose Abreu, Puig, Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena, Rays shortstop Alexei Ramirez -- along with Jay, Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, Detroit's Miguel Cabrera and Seattle's Nelson Cruz -- traveled to Havana, Cuba, as part of a goodwill tour arranged by MLB and the MLBPA. In March, the Rays played against the Cuban national team at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana.

Former All-Star Luis Tiant, a three-time All-Star who left Cuba in 1961, threw out the ceremonial first pitch before that game.

"This is a tragic event that really touches my heart," said Tiant. "I send my best during these tough times to the Fernandez family. He left us too soon, and he was definitely one of up-and-coming stars of Major League Baseball. It's very sad."

The heartbreak reverberated all the way back to Fernandez's beloved island.

"This is devastating for us, such a big blow," said Tony Diaz Susavila, the press officer for the Cuban National team, from Havana. "He went to the United States as a boy and he went with training from here. Part of us was with him there. I know he loved Cuba and he loved baseball. This is such a big loss."

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.