Early Life in Santa, Clara, Cuba:
Jose Fernandez was born on July 31, 1992 in Santa Clara, Cuba. From an early age, it was clear that Fernandez was an exceptional athlete and he quickly caught the eyes of the Cuban government’s sports officials. By the time he was six, Jose was impressing coaches with his arm strength, often firing rocks in the streets instead of baseballs.
Fernandez’s step father, Ramon Jimenez, had escaped Cuba in 2005 and settled in Tampa, Florida. Jose’s plan was to escape the country, too, and join him.
He wanted to follow the path of dozens of talented Cuban players who defected over the years and went on to find wealth and stardom in Major League Baseball.
Three Failed Attempts To Gain Freedom:
Three times he tried to come to the United States and three times he failed. Each failure brought a prison term, Fernandez has said, and the Castro government punished him by keeping him off the national teams.
In 2008, Fernandez and his mother and sister finally made it, though his mother fell overboard when rough seas knocked her from their speedboat. Jose plunged into the water and rescued his mother, according to MLB reports.
The Fernandezes made it to Cancun, Mexico, and then crossed into the border city of Hidalgo, Texas. As soon as they touched U.S. soil, as Cuban refugees they received special protections under the government’s so-called “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy. The family reunited in Tampa shortly after.
A Phenomenal Rise to Big League Stardom:
Jose spoke almost no English but enrolled at Braulio Alonso High School. He quickly became the star of the school’s baseball team, leading it to the Florida playoff finals three straight seasons. He threw two no-hitters as a senior.
In 2011, the Miami Marlins chose Fernandez in the first round of the draft, making him the 14th overall pick. He received a reported $2 million signing bonus.
Fernandez’s rapid rise to the Major Leagues was almost as remarkable as his harrowing journey to freedom. He pitched for the Greensboro Grasshoppers in the Class A South Atlantic League to start the 2012 season, then was promoted to the Class A Jupiter Hammerheads.
He finished his first professional season with a combined 14-1 record, a 1.75 ERA and 158 strikeouts in 134 innings.
The Marlins, who had traded away most of their veteran players after a dismal 2012 season, decided to call up Fernandez early in the hope it might help lagging ticket sales and energize fans in Miami’s large baseball-loving Little Havana exile community.
Fernandez made his big league debut on April 7, 2013, against the New York Mets. At the age of 20, he struck out eight and allowed one run on three hits during five innings of work.
In July, Fernandez was chosen as the Miami Marlins' only representative in the All-Star Game at New York City. He was a bright spot for the last-place Marlins who began rebuilding in 2012 with the firing of Venezuelan-born Manager Ozzie Guillen.
How the Difficult Journey to America Changed Him:
Marlins’ owner Jeffrey Loria has said: “Jose is one of the most impressive young men I’ve ever met.”
Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon, after seeing him pitch against his club for the first time on May 27, said on Twitter: Jose Fernandez might be the best young pitcher I’ve ever seen, at that age. I believe he will go far.”
Orlando Chinea, who coached pitchers on the top Cuban teams before defecting and moving into the Tampa area, was instrumental in guiding Fernandez’s rapid development. Fernandez trained with Chinea while in high school and the two have worked together since. Chinea believes in a balanced and diversified training regimen that does not focus on weight work.
Fernandez has said he regards Chinea as a second father. "The kid just listens to everything," Chinea says.