Freedom came in the form of a lush emerald green field, a cyclone fence and a dirt mound.
It came in the form of simple things most American high school baseball players take for granted: The ability to leave the house whenever they want, to come and go anywhere, to practice, to throw a baseball, to talk to friends, to hang out with peers and laugh.Jose Fernandez
can't get the vision out of his head of the hungry little 5-year-old, standing there in rags and dirt streaks running down his face, telling the passing guard he wanted milk. "Yea, I'm hungry, too," the callous guard said, bellowing out a huge laugh.
Fernandez can't forget looking through the iron bars, and the chill that gripped him from the damp, freezing nights wondering if he'd ever get out alive, let alone pitch again.
He'll always cling to those stints in a Cuban prison, the words "being a traitor to Castro" leaving an indelible mark on his memory.
It's why on Monday tears will flow from the 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-handed pitcher's eyes. The senior from Alonso (Tampa, Fla.)
is expected to be a first-round pick in the Major League Baseball Draft on June 6, Fernandez's own personal D-Day, as in "Destiny Day."
It will be another turn in a stirring life transformation for the 18-year-old, from the brink of death to a path filled with more certainty and promise.
Fernandez just finished a season in which he went 13-1 with a 1.35 ERA and two no-hitters in leading the Alonso Ravens to their second Florida Class 6A state championship in the last three years. In his senior year, he struck out a remarkable 134 and walked just 21, and he graduates with a career 30-3 record, with 314 strikeouts against a mere 59 walks.
This spring ended a topsy-turvy year for Fernandez, who thought his past would catch up to him when in October he was ruled ineligible to play by the Florida High School Athletic Association due to exhausting his four years of high school eligibility. Being a Cuban defector, Fernandez entered ninth grade in Cuba in 2006 and missed his sophomore year of high school trying to defect to the United States.
It meant three separate stints in prison, one longer than the next, but he finally reached heaven on his fourth attempt, diving one time into the treacherous churning waters of the Atlantic Ocean in the wee hours of the morning to save his mother, who had fallen out of the boat in which they were escaping.
"I didn't realize it was my mother that fell off the boat; I just reacted when I saw someone fall overboard," Jose recalled. "I don't remember too much about it, other than just diving into the water and swimming towards this woman. As I was getting close, I could see it was my mother. The boat stopped for us to get back in. That was the closest anyone ever came to dying. Most times, we were stopped just before we got to Miami, when the Coast Guard caught us only 10 miles away the second time I tried."
Then Fernandez, whose stock has risen thanks to sterling performances in the Aflac All-American Classic in San Diego last summer and at the World Wood Bat Association World Championships in October, paused for a minute … "There are a lot of things I won't forget. I can't. When you make the decision to leave Cuba, it is all-or-nothing, either you make it or you die, or you're going to be in jail. I was in jail for 15 days one time. The [Cuban authorities] didn't let me go to school or anything. I missed my whole sophomore year of high school, because they wouldn't let me go to school. I was in a cell with no shelter and there were even little kids in there.
"I remember one who was around 5. He asked the prison guard for some milk because he was hungry, and crying, and the prison guard walked by and said he was hungry, too, shut up! You had no clothes, except the clothes you had on your back. And there was no shelter in these prisons. When it rained, you got wet; it was freezing. You got treated like an animal. That's what it was like. So you can just imagine how much different I look at things now, and how I see things. Life has changed for me these last three years; it's changed for me a lot. I went from not knowing if I was going to play in the beginning of this year, all because of my life and what went on in Cuba, to now maybe being drafted in the first round."
There may not be any "maybe" about it. A South Florida University commit, Fernandez is being projected to go as high as the No. 14 pick to Florida Marlins, to the late-teens, where the Boston Red Sox have the 19th overall selection. The hometown Tampa Bay Rays would love to take him, according to Alonso coach Landy Faedo, but the power pitcher could be gone by the Rays' 24th pick.
Fernandez has been contacted by all 30 Major League teams, and Fernandez and Faedo have received mixed reports, having him go anywhere from the top 10 to somewhere among the top 20.
"Waiting for Monday is nothing new," said Fernandez, who has been able to master English in a short period of time, and didn't know the language when he came to the United States. "I waited 15 years of my life for freedom and to get out of Cuba. A few more days won't bother me. I think what I went through in my life, being in prison, risking my life to get here, that all prepared me for this moment. What I experienced in Cuba is a big part of who I am. I came here to live a dream and to play something that I love, baseball. Trying to escape, living poor, and I mean really poor, being put in prison, it's made me a better person."
And a better pitcher. Fernandez attacks hitters with a fearlessness rarely seen in players his age.
"I came here to fight and try to pitch myself out of [poverty]," Fernandez said. "I think I'm a good teammate, if you're not on my team, I want to strike you out. I'm not scared of anything or anyone. Give me Albert Pujols, anyone, let me face anyone, and I'm going to go after them. I have this simple belief that no one can do anything to me that hasn't been done to me before. I was ready to die in the water, or die in jail to get here."
That ferocity hasn't lost itself on Faedo. Fernandez will attack a hitter on a 3-2 count with a curveball, a changeup or a slider. Those are pitches he also throws, along with his blazing 98 mph fastball. When Fernandez first came to Alonso, he was "high spirited," to say the least. His first home run in an Alonso uniform, he flung his batting helmet in the air, and ran around the bases jumping and hollering as if he hit the game-winning homer of the seventh game of the World Series.
Faedo laughs at the memory.
"Jose plays the game with passion, and when he came to us, he was used to that kind of display from playing in Cuba," Faedo said. "He was just a big kid jumping around, excited he hit a homer. He didn't know we don't celebrate home runs like that here. But that did speak of his passion for the game, and how much he wanted to be a success."
Faedo was also able to glean something else from watching Fernandez the first time … "Jose was very smooth in his delivery, you could tell the kid was good, despite how young he was when we first got him," Faedo said. "There's no doubt that Jose is a special kid. Then to find out everything that happened to him makes him that much more special. He's a very giving kid, and what he's been through none of us can imagine."
There is one thing missing, though, one major piece to Fernandez's amazing journey that still resides in Cuba, the nurturing, cultivating source that made all of this possible – Fernandez's grandmother, whom Jose lived with and who taught him the game. She was the one who sat him down and explained the rules to him, she's the one who taught him how to throw.
"That still hurts, knowing she's still there and can't see all of this," Jose said. "I'd love to go back and get her. But the [Cuban government] won't let me return to Cuba. I would be put in jail for a long time if that happened. My grandmother is the one thing I miss most about Cuba. I love her with all my heart. She knows everything about baseball. I was a baby when she first put a ball in my hand. In Cuba, the first thing you get in your hand is a ball. I owe her everything. But right now, I'm having the best time of my life."