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From Cuba With Heat

Marlins rookie pitcher Jose Fernandez on his journey from Cuban defector to MLB All-Star

Miami was beautiful. That much, Jose Fernandez remembers.

He first saw it about five years ago, while he was floating on a boat about 10 miles from shore — lights stacked on top of lights, all spread upward and outward, wrapping around a piece of land that stretched north and west for several thousand miles more. He knew little about the city. He knew it had Cubans — the lucky few who had succeeded in making the trip he was now attempting. He knew it had baseball. He had heard from some that life there was easy, from others that life there was hard. Either way, he knew he wanted to go. And he knew that, on this night at least, he would never make it to shore.

Because as close as those lights were, Fernandez saw another pair of lights that were much closer — lights from a boat belonging to the United States Coast Guard, just a few hundred yards away. “When you see those lights,” Fernandez says, “you know it’s over. You hear the stories about those people. They’re incredible at their job.”

Their job in these waters, at least since the United States changed its policy in 1995, is to send Cubans back to where they came from. The law is odd, but simple. If you’re a Cuban defector who makes it to U.S. soil, you can stay. If you’re caught in the water, you go home.

Fernandez was caught in the water. The Coast Guard would send him to Cuba. The Cuban government would send him to prison. That would be fine, Fernandez thought. He just needed to survive. As long as he did that, someday, he could leave again.

It was late afternoon last Friday, 102 days into Jose Fernandez’s major league career, when the Marlins’ All-Star pitcher came close — so close — to correctly remembering his coach’s name.

The issue came up while Fernandez was stretching near home plate at Marlins Park before batting practice, looking up to see bench coach Rob Leary walk toward him. “Hey, Larry,” Fernandez said — good enough for someone who’s been speaking English for only five years, but not good enough to keep fellow starter Kevin Slowey from doubling over in laughter.

“What did you just call him?” Slowey said, jumping up midstretch to drape his arm around Leary’s shoulder.

Fernandez looked on. “What do you mean, what did I call him?” A 20-year-old first-year player who has built a reputation for pitching like he’s neither 20 nor a rookie, Fernandez is his team’s ace and only All-Star. Yet he finds himself in a tough position. He has spent enough time in the United States to adapt to American culture, but not enough time in the country or in the big leagues to know when, exactly, the veterans are making fun of him.

“What’s this guy’s name?” Slowey asked, now positioning Leary so Fernandez couldn’t see the back of his jersey. Fernandez shook his head. “Ask [Adeiny] Hechavarria,” Fernandez said, deflecting attention to the team’s other Cuban defector, who speaks little English. “He doesn’t know the names of half the guys on the team.”

But no, Slowey insisted: For the moment, this was about Fernandez. There had to be some satisfaction in catching the rookie in a mistake, because for so much of the season, Fernandez has seemed almost infallible — leading all rookie starters with a 2.75 ERA and ranking third in the majors in hits per nine innings, all during a season that he was supposed to spend in Double-A.

Fernandez has drawn less attention than a fellow Cuban rookie, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig — he of the outrageous hype and the more outrageous backlash — but unlike Puig, Fernandez will actually be in New York tonight, playing for the National League All-Stars. Also unlike Puig, Fernandez has been willing to talk through his own story, one of failed defections and prison time, one that he still struggles to believe led to him becoming a 20-year-old All-Star.

But he still can’t remember his coach’s name. “Come on, man,” said Slowey. “First and last name — what is it?”

“Ah, fuck off, guys,” Fernandez said. “I don’t know.” He continued stretching as his teammates continued laughing. There are a few things, at least, that the rookie has yet to learn.

If you wanted to find a good bat near Fernandez’s childhood home in Santa Clara, Cuba, you were better off moving away from the trees and into the fields. Louisville Sluggers were predictably scarce on the island, so as a 5-year-old in search of a proper bat, he had to take inventory of the sticks near his family farm. Breaking a branch off a tree wouldn’t work. A fresh branch, Fernandez explains, would probably be damp. Damp branches break.

He looked for sticks that had been on the ground for a while, those that had been hardened in the Caribbean sun. Once he had a proper bat, Fernandez took a spare bag from his home and wandered around in search of rocks. The best rocks, of course, were those closest in size to a baseball, but Fernandez couldn’t be too picky. Whatever he found, he kept, at least long enough for him to toss into the air and smack with his newfound stick, hopefully far enough to pass the treeline that he designated as the boundary for a home run. Then he’d round the bases — first might have been a tree, second a stone, third a patch of dirt, all depending on the day — and he’d return to his sack of rocks and do it all over again. He played alone, hours at a time. He let himself dream. Someday, if he worked hard, he might make it to the Cuban League.

He had no reason to fantasize about the major leagues. For one, Fernandez knew nothing about MLB. “I heard that the best baseball was there,” he says, “but it’s not like I knew who the players were or who the teams were or anything.” Second, he had no reason to think he’d ever leave Cuba. Though he shared a bedroom with his grandmother, by Cuban standards he was upper middle class. “Middle class in Cuba isn’t the same as middle class here,” says Fernandez’s stepsister, Yadenis Jimenez. But Fernandez never went hungry. He never thought of himself as poor.

“We had no reason to want to leave Cuba,” says Ramon Jimenez, Fernandez’s stepfather. “For a lot of people, it made sense. But for us, we were OK.”

In fact, Fernandez would probably still be in Cuba if not for a professional setback suffered by Jimenez. He was denied the opportunity to leave the country for a medical mission in Venezuela because the government deemed him a risk to defect. “Until then,” he says, “we had no reason to ever want to leave Cuba, to ever even think about it. But that was a reminder. When you’re there, it’s like you’re in prison. I had to leave.” So he would defect first, Jimenez planned, and then he would save enough money to have his children join him.

Everyone in Cuba, Jimenez says, knows someone who knows someone who traffics defectors. If you want to escape, then you make a few calls, maybe hold a few meetings, pay somewhere between $500 and $10,000 (Fernandez says his defection cost about a grand), and the next thing you know, you’re on your way to a boat. But that’s the easy part. Most would-be defectors get caught, and generally, those are the lucky ones. Many Cubans refer to the stretch of water between Havana and Miami as the Caribbean’s largest cemetery. If the current doesn’t get you, then there’s always the threat of a leaky boat, a soldier’s bullet, or, in some cases, an aggressive shark.

Jimenez took his chances. Thirteen times, he failed. Usually, their boat never made it into the water. His group would approach the beach and wait for their ride, but as soon as the boat arrived, one member of the group — an undercover agent — would make a call. Police would arrive. If Jimenez and the others were lucky, they would go home. If not, they’d end up in jail.

Eventually, however, Jimenez noticed a pattern. The undercover agent would typically wait until the defectors made their final call — the one coordinating the exact time of pickup — and then initiate the bust. That way, when the boat arrived, police could arrest all parties involved. If a group could keep their pickup time a secret, he thought, then they could escape before the police arrived. Jimenez changed his approach. Instead of waiting on dry land, he and his group spent hours sitting in the water. The undercover agent, if one was present, had no choice but to follow. Only now the defectors left a coconspirator back on the beach with a cell phone, which he used to coordinate the pickup. Their arrangements could no longer be overheard. No one knew when the boat would arrive — not Jimenez, not his fellow defectors, and not anyone from law enforcement who might have infiltrated the group. They stood in the sea, heads just above the water. They waited. When the boat arrived, they hopped aboard. If an agent were around, he’d have no chance to call for help. By the time he returned to dry land to get his phone, the defectors would be gone.

Once Jimenez made it to Florida, he settled in Tampa. First, he worked at the airport, washing cars. But soon enough he found a job in the medical field, and he saved enough money to begin sending for his family members. Jose was a teenager by then, just a few years away from being enlisted in Cuba’s compulsory military service. He was also a pitcher with a decent fastball, and the more he talked to Jimenez, the more he fantasized about life in the United States. By age 14, he and his mother decided to defect.

Three times, they set off for Miami. Three times, they failed. Fernandez spent a few months in a Cuban prison, an attempted defector surrounded by murderers, a 14-year-old boy locked up with grown men. He doesn’t ever want to think about the food again — “I have no idea how I would even describe it in English,” he says, “but believe me, you don’t want to know.” He tries not to remember all those bodies cramped into so little space. And he doesn’t let his mind dwell on the inmate killings. “To them, their lives were already over,” Fernandez says. “What did it matter to them if they killed you? That’s just one more murder.”

After Fernandez was released from prison, at age 15 he and his mother planned another attempt. This time, instead of leaving from the north to Miami — for decades the expressway for Cuban defectors — they would travel south to the province of Sancti Spiritus and depart from a beach near the city of Trinidad. Instead of heading to the United States, they would arrive in Cancun. The alternate route was longer but more lightly policed. The seas were rougher, but there would be no threat of seeing lights from the Coast Guard. In Trinidad, Jose and his mother, Maritza, met his stepsister Yadenis and her mother, as well as eight other hopeful escapees.

Along the northerly route to Miami, there will sometimes be dozens or even hundreds of potential defectors, all lurking by the beach and waiting for boats. But here in the south, Fernandez’s group was alone. It was near midnight and the rain fell cool and steady and they scrambled for cover near the water until they found a cave. They dropped down inside and huddled together, their feet battered and bloody from the sharp rocks inside the cave. Nearby was a lighthouse, manned by police they assumed were watching for defectors. “We thought, They’ll never suspect us here,” Fernandez says. “No one would be crazy enough to do this so close to the lookout.” When the light beamed in their direction, they ducked. When it passed, they allowed themselves to stand.

Below them they saw an inlet, water that stretched from the cave out to sea. Fernandez dropped into the water to check its depth. He couldn’t reach the bottom, which convinced him that it was deep enough for a speedboat. Over the phone, he directed the speedboat’s driver to enter the cave. It arrived, they boarded, and immediately they sped away. Soon they reached international waters, where a houseboat was waiting. “Turn around and look,” the captain told them. “This is the last time you’re ever going to see Cuba.” Yeah, right, Fernandez thought. He’d believed that on previous trips, and every time he ended up back on the island. This time, he wouldn’t let himself get carried away.

It’s difficult for Fernandez to remember much of the days that followed, but he does remember the boat — towering and luxurious, far more than their group required. He remembers the waves pounding the deck, tossing the boat in all directions, leaving them convinced that soon they’d all be dead. He remembers the seasickness; that’s the one thing they all remember, standing on the deck and wretching overboard. He doesn’t recall passing out, but his sister says he was unconscious for about 24 hours. But he remembers waking up — his eyes opening when the waters calmed and his mother cooked him a plate of ham.

And then he remembers the splash. He heard it one night while he was making small talk with the captain. After the splash, he heard the screams. A wave had crashed over the boat’s deck and swept Fernandez’s mother out to sea. He saw her body and before he had time to think, he jumped in. A spotlight shone on the water, and Fernandez could make out his mother thrashing in the waves about 60 feet from the boat. She could swim, but just barely, and as Fernandez pushed his way toward her, he spat out salty water with almost every stroke. Waves — “stupid big,” he says — lifted him to the sky, then dropped him back down. When he reached his mother he told her, “Grab my back, but don’t push me down. Let’s go slow, and we’ll make it.” She held his left shoulder. With his right arm — his pitching arm — he paddled. Fifteen minutes later, they reached the boat. A rope dropped, and they climbed aboard. For now, at least, they were going to be OK.

Soon, they reached Mexico. There were fewer lights than in Miami, but at least they made it to shore. They entered a mansion owned by the operator of the trafficking ring. Inside, dozens of other defectors were waiting — had been waiting for quite a while. Cuba was far away, but the United States was even farther.

I don’t know what was going on,” Fernandez says of his time on the Mexican coast. There is no “Wet foot, dry foot” policy in Mexico like there is in the United States. There, Cuban defectors are deported if found, and Fernandez’s group heard talk of local politicians who needed to be bribed and false documents that needed to be created. “You don’t ask questions,” he says. “Whatever these people ask you to do, you do.” So for more than a week, he waited.

Soon they got on a northbound bus to Veracruz. Then they took another bus, also headed north. It was supposed to take them to a border town called Reynosa. But along the way, the bus rolled to a stop. A woman and four men, dressed in police uniforms, walked onboard. Fernandez watched as, one by one, they told the Cubans to come outside. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and pretended to sleep.

Someone tapped his shoulder. It was time for Fernandez to leave the bus too. They stood on the side of the road, and when questioned, they gave the officers a phone number for one of the traffickers. If they had any problems, the man said, just tell people to call me. Meanwhile, the officers walked up and down the line, eyeing the migrants. If they saw a piece of jewelry they liked, they took it. If you had any money on you, they took that too. OK, Fernandez thought. This is it. We’re going back now, but that’s OK. Just as long as we don’t die.

They didn’t. Instead, when the officers — or whoever they were — had taken all they wanted, they let the defectors back on the bus. A few hours later, they arrived in Reynosa. From Reynosa, they crossed over into Texas. If you’re Cuban, it doesn’t matter if you arrive by boat or by bus; as soon as you step foot on American soil, you’re welcomed in.1 “When we got to Texas,” Fernandez says, “and we’re standing in the immigration office to get our papers, and it’s finally happening, it was just like,” and he pauses.

“Just, I don’t know. Just … Damn.”

That was April 5, 2008. Nine days later, under a tree at a little league baseball field in north Tampa, Fernandez met the man who would change his life. Orlando Chinea is a gray-haired, coffee-skinned Cuban defector who smokes at least one Montecristo a day and believes all pitchers can become better if they just flip a few more tires and chop down a few more trees.

He looked at the 15-year-old Fernandez, a little taller than 6 feet but still only 160 pounds, and he wasn’t sure what to think. A former pitching coach in the Japanese league and for the Cuban national team, Chinea now worked privately with Tampa-area prospects. He’d agreed to meet Fernandez free of charge, but if the kid wasn’t good enough, he wasn’t going to waste anybody’s time. Fernandez threw. “He couldn’t pitch,” Chinea says. “He could throw.” His fastball topped out at around 84 miles per hour. His curveball delivery was short-armed, but at least the pitch actually curved. Good enough, Chinea thought.

That summer, they worked. Eight a.m. to 1:30 p.m. “Monday to Monday,” Chinea says. “No breaks.” For a month, Fernandez never touched a baseball. He’d spend an hour a day stretching, then a few more hours working out — plyometrics, some weight training, swimming, throwing medicine balls, and, of course, flipping tires and chopping trees. He did, on occasion, complain. But he stopped himself. “I thought about how many people there are in America,” Fernandez says. “Out of all of those people, a lot of them are baseball players. Out of all of those baseball players, a lot of them are pitchers. And then I would think, are any of those pitchers out there working out, right now? Probably, somewhere, yeah. So I couldn’t quit.” Says Chinea: “He couldn’t quit. It didn’t matter if he hated the workouts. He loved the baseball.” Chinea, who has worked with fellow Cubans Livan Hernandez, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, and Jose Contreras, says, “I’ve never known anybody who loves baseball as much as Jose.”

Besides, what else was he going to do? Fernandez had no friends and spoke little English. Baseball was familiar. In the heat, in the middle of a workout, it felt almost as if he was back home. So every day he showed up and he worked. Finally, Chinea let him start pitching, and he bought a Wilson glove from Walmart for $13.99.

That fall he arrived at tryouts at Alonso High School, a state power. He was an afterthought, included in the last tryout group of the day. He threw. The radar gun read 94. Yes, coach Landy Faedo decided. They could use him on the team.

Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins delivers a pitch during the first inning against the San Diego Padres at Marlins Park on July 1, 2013 in Miami, Florida.

The next year, Fernandez took a Sharpie to his bathroom mirror. He scrawled on it, in large numbers, “98.” Ninety-eight miles per hour. Every day, that was the goal. Working alongside Chinea, he would get there soon enough.

In the afternoons, Fernandez went from school to baseball practice. After practice, he stayed on the field with Chinea, and they worked every night from 6 to 9. On weekends, they worked in mornings. Chinea would show up at Fernandez’s house on Sundays, ready to roll at 5:30 a.m. On Christmas, he worked. On New Year’s Eve, he was out on the field past 9 p.m.

It was good, but never good enough. One afternoon, Fernandez pitched seven innings for Alonso, striking out 15 batters.2 The next day, while working out, he asked Chinea to grade his performance. “Horseshit,” Chinea said. “You pitched like a kindergartner.” Yes, he had a lot of strikeouts, but, Chinea pointed out, most of them came on short-armed curveballs. “Are you training to be a high school pitcher?” Chinea asked. “Or are you training for the major leagues?”

Fernandez walked off. Chinea was supposed to be his ride, but instead, he would walk home. Chinea pulled up alongside him as he walked. “Get in the car,” Chinea said, but Fernandez refused. “OK,” Chinea replied, and he sped away. The next day Chinea told him he was suspended — no private workouts for at least two weeks. By the end of those two weeks, Fernandez had lost 6 miles per hour off his fastball. Fine, he decided. He wouldn’t argue with Chinea again.

Yet it could be tough for Fernandez to stay quiet. He had never been one to keep his emotions contained. As a high school player, he would finish home run swings by dropping the bat and raising both arms in the air, and after his first high school long ball, he’d taken off his helmet as he rounded second base and waved it above his head. He punctuated strikeouts by shouting “¡siéntate!” — Spanish for “sit down!” — and he was known, when he felt it necessary, to inform an umpire that he was blind. “Was he cocky?” asks Shane Bishop, a high school teammate who now plays at Eckerd College. “I don’t think anyone will argue with you if you say he was cocky, but he put in the work. He did everything he could to back all of that up.”

As a sophomore, he led Alonso to a state title. As a senior, he did it again. During that year Chuck Hernandez, now pitching coach for the Marlins, watched him play. Fernandez had committed to the University of South Florida, but when Hernandez saw Fernandez pitch, he broke some bad news to the USF coaching staff. “You’re not getting that guy,” Hernandez said, as recalled in a Miami Herald story. “He ain’t going to no college.”

He was right. The Marlins made Fernandez the 14th overall pick in the 2011 draft.

By the end of high school, Chinea had changed his message. Fernandez no longer pitched like a kindergartner. “You’re ready for the major leagues,” Chinea told him. “You’re better than some of those guys right now.”

Fernandez never planned to spend much time in the minors. “He was very confident,” says Wayne Rosenthal, the Marlins minor league pitching coordinator. “Was he cocky? Yeah, I’ll say he was cocky. He was the new kid on the block, the high draft pick, and he talked like it. Some players were like, ‘What is this guy doing? He better back it up.’ Well, he did.”

Fernandez’s minor league coaches, like his high school coaches, worked to tone down his outward expressions of emotion. No more arguing with umpires, no more taking off his helmet after home runs, no more telling strikeout victims when and where they should sit down. “It’s a different game in America,” says Chinea. “You can’t show the same passion. It’s a different set of rules.”3

In 2012, Fernandez blew through A ball, going 14-1 with a 1.75 ERA, striking out 10.6 hitters per nine innings. This year he came to spring training, he said, hoping to learn. “I remember talking to him one day in the spring,” says Marlins reliever Steve Cishek. “And he’s just going on about how he’s excited to be there, how he really wants to keep quiet and see what it’s like, just learn from the veterans. I’m like, ‘OK, man, that’s cool.’ Well, next thing you know, here he is in the big leagues, and he’s bouncing around the clubhouse yelling, laughing, everything. It’s like he owns the place.”

Fernandez never played above Class-A last year, and though he planned to blow through the minors, he did expect to at least begin this year in Double-A. The Marlins, however, were shaping up to be a disaster in 2013. Fresh off an offseason fire sale of marquee players, the team was playing in an immaculate but often near-empty $634 million stadium. The park, financed largely with public funds, rewarded the residents of Miami-Dade County with baseball’s second-lowest payroll and a roster sure to rank among the worst in the big leagues. So even if Fernandez sparkled, his team would still stink. And all the while, the franchise would be wasting one of his three seasons playing for the league minimum. The sooner they called him up, the sooner he’d be eligible for arbitration. And the sooner that happened, the sooner he’d likely be traded to a higher-spending team.

“People could debate it,” says Mike Redmond, the Marlins manager. “But I look at this guy and want him on my team. Everyone around the team looks at this guy and wants him on the team. Of course we all do.” The day before the season opener, the Marlins placed starting pitchers Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi on the disabled list.

“At that point, you’re asking me for the best pitcher we’ve got in the minor leagues, well, this is the guy,” says Rosenthal, the pitching coordinator. “You can question whether it’s the right decision all you want, but bottom line, this is the guy who’s ready to go.” Fernandez was at a shopping mall in Palm Beach Gardens when Rosenthal called him back to the ballpark. There, he got on the phone with team owner Jeffrey Loria. Loria had something to tell him.

Minutes later, Fernandez sat alone in his car, and he cried. In nine days, he would take the mound to start against the New York Mets.

On the field last Friday, Fernandez stood around before batting practice with his fellow pitchers. It had been more than three months since he gave up one run on three hits in that first start against the Mets, and less than a week since he learned that he’d be returning to New York as an All-Star. His fastball touches 99, his changeup can float in or drop straight down, and his curve runs so far away from swinging bats that teammate Logan Morrison named it “the defector.”

“He has some balls on him,” says Marlins infielder Placido Polanco, who compares Fernandez’s on-field demeanor to that of Albert Pujols. “He’s not backing down — he doesn’t care who you are.” Slowey likens Fernandez to a right-handed, pre-injury version of Francisco Liriano. “Only Jose knows his body more,” says Slowey. “He’s completely sure of his mechanics.”

But he’s still a rookie. And on this afternoon, his teammates were still giving him shit. “No shorts on the field!” yelled Slowey, pointing to Fernandez’s rolled-up pants. “You’re going to get fined $100 for that.” Fernandez groaned and rolled down his pants, shaking his head while Slowey laughed. He wasn’t scheduled to start until the next day, but Fernandez was already looking forward to it.

“That’s one rule I love,” he said. “On the day you start, before the game you can do whatever you want. Come on the field whenever you want, wear whatever you want, just do anything.”

He grabbed an oversize rubber band to stretch out his shoulders. He was standing in the center of the Marlins’ home field, already a millionaire and likely just years away from signing a contract that will promise him many millions more. He stood less than 20 miles away from the spot where he’d floated in the ocean that night more than five years ago and gazed at a city he knew he might never reach.

Fernandez had come an awful long way to travel that handful of miles, and for a moment, he allowed himself to take stock of how drastically his life had changed: “It’s like, you tell someone, ‘Hey, I’m going to work today.’ ‘Oh yeah? What are you going to do?’ And you say, ‘I get to do whatever I want.’ Can you believe that? We get one day a week where we can do whatever we want. How many people can say that?”

In Cuba, very few. But in the same number of years it takes many his age to earn a bachelor’s degree, Fernandez has gone from inmate to defector to MLB All-Star. So yes, he allows himself to enjoy everything about his life, even the luxury of breaking the dress code once a week.

“Man,” he continued, smiling as he surveyed his teammates. “If you can say that, you got a pretty good job.”

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Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn