CHICAGO — Chicago Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler played with Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez when the two were growing up in Cuba. They traveled together to Venezuela for a youth tournament.
Soler said Fernandez’s ability was obvious, right from the start.
“Since he was a child, since we were kids, I knew he had something,” Soler said through a translator. “He had a talent. It was very impressive.”
Fernandez’s death in a boating accident at the age of 24 cast a dark shadow over the major leagues on Sunday. Miami’s home game against Atlanta was canceled, and several ballparks observed moments of silence. Wrigley Field’s iconic hand-operated scoreboard displayed Fernandez’s No. 16 in its pitching column next to Miami.
But the loss of Fernandez was felt most acutely in baseball’s growing Cuban community.
“He was one of those guys that everybody loved,” St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena said. “He was one of those guys that everybody knew exactly what he meant to our community. For us, it’s a big, big loss. It’s one of those things where our thoughts and prayers are obviously with his family, the Marlins’ organization and the fans. But it gets a little bit closer because he was part of our Cuban family.”
There was very little mention of Fernandez’s death by Cuban state media, which were virtually silent with none of the country’s main newspapers mentioning it.
The sole state-run evening news program also said nothing about the fatal accident. A brief story in Cubadebate, the country’s main news website, said “Latin American baseball and the Major Leagues are undoubtedly in mourning, and many of his followers can’t believe the news.”
The flight of baseball talent for rich contracts in the U.S. remains a sensitive topic in Cuba, where a baseball program that was a source of national pride has been devastated by departures for the Major Leagues. With few exceptions, state media do not mention Cuban players who have gone to the U.S. and games featuring those players are not rebroadcast on government-run TV.
There were 23 Cubans on opening-day major league rosters this year, an increase of five over last season and the most since the commissioner’s office began releasing data in 1995. Many of the players share similar stories when it comes to their perilous journey from the communist country to the majors, and the difficulty of adjusting to life in the United States.
A native of Santa Clara, Cuba, Fernandez was unsuccessful in his first three attempts to defect, and spent several months in prison. At 15, Fernandez and his mother finally made it to Mexico, and were reunited in Florida with his father, who had escaped from Cuba two years earlier.
He was drafted by the Marlins in 2011, and quickly turned into one of the majors’ top pitchers.
“How he was on the mound was a reflection of him,” Oakland first baseman Yonder Alonso said. “A guy who had a lot of fun, was himself. A very talkative guy, he would come into the room and you’d know he was in the room. Never big-leagued anyone, very professional. No matter what, he would talk to you about hitting, because he thought he was the best hitter, and he (would) talk to you about pitching, because he thought he was the best pitcher.”
Alonso said Fernandez’s death was “a big-time shock.” Yasiel Puig used torn pieces of white athletic tape to display Fernandez’s jersey on the wall in the home dugout at Dodger Stadium. Cardinals rookie Aledmys Diaz, who had known Fernandez since they were little kids, declined an interview request through a team spokeswoman.
“We Cuban players know each other well and all of us have a great relationship,” Pena said. “For us, it’s devastating news when we woke up. We were sending text messages to each other and we were showing support. It’s something that obviously nobody expects.”
Fernandez, who became a U.S. citizen last year, also was beloved for his stature in the Cuban community in Miami.
“He was a great humanitarian,” Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman said through a translator. “He gave a lot to the community and I think that’s why he got a lot of respect from the community in terms of what a great person he was and always giving, in terms of always willing to help out in whatever way he can to try to better and progress within the community someone that perhaps wasn’t as fortunate as he was.”
The 28-year-old Chapman lives in the Miami-area in the offseason. He said he spent some time with Fernandez while he was home.
“He would come by my house. I would go by his,” Chapman said. “We would have long conversations. We would talk a lot. We spent a lot of good amount of time together. It was very special for me.”
Associated Press Writer Michael Weissenstein contributed to this report from Havana
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap