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'All Cubans Are Saddened By This Loss'; Fans React To Death Of Marlins Ace

Miami Marlins player Christian Yelich (right) and teammate Justin Bour in front of a memorial for Marlins pitcher José Fernández on Sunday.
Gaston De Cardenas
Miami Marlins player Christian Yelich (right) and teammate Justin Bour in front of a memorial for Marlins pitcher José Fernández on Sunday.

Updated on Sept. 29:

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has since corrected statements made by spokesman Lorenzo Veloz, saying the exact time of the accident is still under investigation and that the registered owner of the vessel is, in fact, José Fernández. In addition, the agency has not ruled out the involvement of alcohol and is still investigating the speed of the boat and the exact time of the crash.

Our original post continues:

Baseball fans and members of the Cuban community are grieving publicly for José Fernández, the 24-year-old Miami Marlins ace pitcher who died in a boating accident this weekend.

On Sunday, Major League Baseball games across the country held a moment of silence for Fernández before the first pitch. At Marlins Park in Miami, where Sunday's game against the Atlanta Braves was canceled, fans left photos, flowers, and other memorabilia along the gates. The Miami Herald reports that every Marlins player will wear Fernández's number, 16, in Monday's game against the New York Mets.

Detroit Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias told the Detroit News he knew Fernández well; both were born in Cuba and came to the U.S. as teenagers. "We hung out in Miami together. We've been through a lot together," Iglesias said.

Iglesias was scheduled to play for the Tigers on Sunday night but was removed from the roster after news of his friend's death.

On Monday, the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office released the names of the two other men who died in the crash that killed Fernández.

Emilio Macias, 27, and Eduardo Rivero, 25, died when the 32-foot boat they were riding in smashed into a rocky jetty off Miami Beach early Sunday morning.

The Miami-Dade sheriff's office tells NPR the investigation into what caused the crash is being handled by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is responsible for critical accident investigations related to boating and waterways in Florida.

A Florida Fish and Wildlife spokesman, Lorenzo Veloz, said Sunday there was "no indication of alcohol or any illegal drugs involved" and that none of the three men were wearing life vests when their bodies were recovered. Veloz also told reporters that he was familiar with the boat, and that it was not owned by Fernández.

A photo showed the boat completely overturned and badly damaged.

Many fans knew Fernández not just for his stellar pitching but for his harrowing and inspiring story of defecting from Cuba. He described his three failed attempts to escape from Cuba by boat in a 2013 profile for the sports site Grantland:

"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.' "

During his fourth attempt, when he was 15 years old, Fernández told Grantland, his mother was swept overboard. He jumped in and saved her, and they made it Mexico. From there, they went to Tampa, Fla., where Fernández enrolled in high school.

Just over three years after he arrived in the U.S., the young player was drafted by the Miami Marlins, and two years after that he won National League Rookie of the Year. He became one of the best pitchers in the league. Less than a week ago, Fernandez shared a photo on Instagram that appeared to announce he and his girlfriend were expecting a baby, with the hashtag #familyfirst.

At a baseball game in Havana on Sunday, hours after news broke of Fernández's death, fans expressed disbelief. Darel Fernandez, no relation, told Reuters, "It's surprising. It gives me goose bumps."

"It really hits us Cubans hard because he was our best pitcher in the big leagues," he continued. "It's really emotional."

Another fan, Lazaro Cardenas, told the wire service, "All Cubans are saddened by this loss. Maybe in the future he could have pitched a classic here in our country, wearing the national team's jersey. Who knows?"

Raul Mas, a Cuban-American from Miami-Dade County, told USA Today that he connected with his father over Fernández's success as a pitcher.

"He was one of us," Mas told the newspaper. "My father is 45 years older than me, so baseball is our bond. And José was all we talked about — a certain game, a certain pitch. We'd only go to games where he pitched."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.