Miami Marlins pitcher José Fernandez, an electric fan favorite who eight years ago fled Cuba on a speedboat, was killed early Sunday along with two friends in a violent boat crash off South Beach. He was 24.
Fernandez’s shocking death, the details of which are still under investigation, rocked Miami and Major League Baseball and caused the team’s game in Miami against the Atlanta Braves — in which Fernandez was originally scheduled to start before his appearance was moved back to Monday — to be canceled.
“When I think about José, I see such a little boy. The way he played, there was just joy with him,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said with tears in his eyes Sunday during a press conference on Fernandez’s death.
According to authorities, the 32-foot center-console SeaVee in which Fernandez and two male friends in their 20s were traveling was spotted overturned on the unlit jetty that juts into Government Cut from South Pointe Park at around 3:15 a.m by a U.S. Coast Guard crew on routine patrol out of Miami Beach. The boat’s navigation lights were still on, and debris was scattered everywhere.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue divers rushed to the jetty, located on the north side of Government Cut, and found two bodies beneath the boat. They found a third in the water to the south of the jetty. After searching for hours, they believe no one else was on board.
Investigators say they’re not sure where Fernandez and his friends were headed, or where they’d come from. But they say the boat, which belongs to a close friend of several Miami Marlins players, was was traveling south at full speed when it struck the jetty and flipped.
None of the three on the boat were wearing their life vests. There’s no evidence that alcohol or drugs played a role in the crash.
“It’s a tragic loss for the city of Miami, for the community, for baseball, and for anyone who ever met Jose,” said Wildlife Commission Officer Lorenzo Veloz, who had met Fernandez several times on the water. “I’m sorry. I’m getting goosebumps right now. It’s really hitting home.”
Autopsies will be conducted by the Miami-Dade medical examiner’s office. Authorities have not released the names of the other two men on the boat as their families have not yet been notified.
Fernandez, who leaves behind a pregnant girlfriend, was considered one of the Marlins biggest stars and one of the best pitchers in baseball. He was the team’s first-round draft pick in 2011 and the National League rookie of the year in 2013. He was finishing up on his finest season in the majors, and expected to make his final start of the season Monday after his appearance Sunday was pushed back.
The death leaves his family, the team, league and Miami in shock. On their way into the stadium Sunday, Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton and AJ Ramos walked with their heads lowered and said nothing. Second baseman Dee Gordon had tears in his eyes. Mourning fans came to leave flowers. In New York, Cuban player Yoenis Céspedes taped a Fernandez jersey in the team’s dugout.
During a press conference, Marlins President David Samson said the team was asked to confirm Fernandez’s address Sunday morning when they received a call about the crash. Fernandez’s number 16 was stenciled at the mound in Marlins Park, and his number displayed prominently around the stadium.
“When you talk about a tragedy like this, there are no words. There is no playbook,” Samson said. “We will play tomorrow.”
Politicians around Miami and the state also took to social media to offer condolences to Fernandez’s family and celebrate his life.
“His death is a huge loss for our community,” Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said in a statement.
Athletes shared their memories as well.
“Hermano, wherever you are, you know how much I loved you,” tweeted Yasiel Puig, who like Fernandez was a Cuban athlete and one of baseball’s most exciting, rising stars in recent years. “Sin palabras. My heart is with the families.”
Growing up in Cuba, Fernandez was jailed after failing on one of several attempts to flee the nation. When he finally managed to defect successfully, it was only after he escaped gunfire and jumped into the Gulf of Mexico to rescue his mother after their boat capsized. They crossed the border from Mexico, stepping foot in Texas, on April 5, 2008. He was 15.
“I’ve been in jail. I’ve been shot at. I’ve been in the water,” Fernandez told the Miami Herald in 2013. “I’m not scared to face [New York Mets slugger] David Wright. What can he do?”
Fernandez also appears to have regularly enjoyed boating. His Instagram account includes a number of pictures on the water, fishing with friends or relaxing. One includes a picture of a boat named Kaught Looking, with the “K” facing backward and lined in Marlins colors. Veloz, the fish and game officer, said the boat Fernandez was traveling in Sunday morning belonged to a close friend of several Marlins players, and was well-known to authorities.
Veloz said he had even stopped the boat several times with Marlins players aboard, including Fernandez, to conduct safety inspections.
Still, even though it sounds like the captain of the boat had experience, and navigational equipment, nighttime brings the most perils for boat operators. Hazards can be impossible to spot without the aid of a GPS device or careful attention to navigation lights designed to identify safe channels and flag obstructions.
While darkness presents its own challenges, lights ashore cause problems, too. The brightness of South Beach at night can obscure lights on markers and buoys that indicate safe passage, said one local rescue captain.
“When you’re facing the city those lights are very hard to discern from the street lights and car lights,” said Rand Pratt, owner of the Sea Tow operation based in Key Biscayne. “It’s pretty significant, especially if you’re coming in from the ocean to the city.”
Leonel Reyes, a supervisor at the county’s rescue-boat squad, said Miami-Dade’s rescue-boat squad received notification of the crash at 3:50 a.m., just 45 minutes before high tide, a time that added to the risk since the unlit jetties can be even harder to spot. The north jetty also juts out about 1,000 feet further to the east than the south jetty, which sometimes catches boaters off-guard.
“They just stick out a foot,” at high tide, Reyes said. “They’re very dangerous at night. The visibility is not very good.”
None of the victims were wearing life jackets, authorities said. That’s frowned upon by safety advocates but also typical. “That’s every boater in Miami,” Reyes said.
Photos of the vessel show damage to the hull near the front of the boat, in a spot that would have been underwater during operation. Veloz said the boat is believed to have struck the jetty. But Omar Blanco, a lieutenant in the county fire department and head of its union, said it’s not just the jetties that can cause boaters problems, but the submerged rocks around them.
“We’ve seen that happen all the time,” Blanco said of boating mishaps near Government Cut. “There are rocks underwater you don’t see. People run aground there.”