His death has “had an extraordinary impact on our community,” Senator Marco Rubio said paying tribute to José Fernandez on the Senate floor.
Fernandez, star pitcher for the Miami Marlins, was killed in a tragic boating accident on Sunday morning at the young age of 24. Two friends on the boat with him, Emilio Macias, 27, and Eduardo Rivero, 25, were also killed.
His death was felt across the Cuban exile community in Florida, which was very apparent through the powerful delivery of Senator Rubio’s impassioned speech. Marco described the incredible odds José overcame to simply make it to America. The baseball star was born in Santa Clara, Cuba, a place where the Senator explained that “tree branches and rocks pass as Louisville Sluggers and Rawlings balls.”
The way he lived his life…he reminded all of us how blessed we are to live in this, the greatest nation on Earth.
As a kid, “he would spend countless hours swinging branches at rocks he had collected, dreaming of the day his talents could and would take him somewhere else,” Rubio continued.
José’s stepfather defected from Cuba to Tampa on this 13th attempt and had made a life for himself, which presented the young Fernandez with a choice: stay in Cuba or risk it all for a chance to be free in America.
“He risked it. Not once,” Rubio explained, “but on four separate occasions.”
His desperation to leave the island of Cuba was such that they traveled through the straights of Florida on boats that likely should not have been traveling more than a few miles from the shoreline. After three failed attempts of fleeing the country, the Cuban government threw him in jail for two months. He was only fourteen years old. On his fourth attempt, a woman was thrown from their boat into crashing waves. She was 60-feet from the boat, but without thinking twice, and barely a teenager, José jumped in to save her. Senator Rubio explains that it wasn’t until Fernandez got close that he realized the woman who had fallen overboard was his mother. They made it back to the boat, and eventually to America.
José described his early years in America among the hardest in his life — that’s saying something given he spent two months in a Cuban prison — but he overcame his challenges, came into his own, and quickly became a star on the high school baseball diamond in Tampa. The scouts took notice.
This is what the American dream looks like, and boy is the American dream alive and well.
Before the 2011 draft, the scouting report on Fernandez was released. Rubio shares that, while he obviously got high marks on his athletic abilities, it’s not what set him apart.
“What set him apart was how he was graded when it came to his poise, instinct and aggressiveness,” he continued. “The notes on the official scouting report read:
‘No fear approach.’
“This was not cockiness or arrogance,” Senator Rubio explained, “it was the kind of peaceful self-assurance that comes from a kid who had known life and death, who had known freedom and captivity, and who had lived more life in nineteen years than a kid his age should have to.”
Despite his hall-of-fame talents, what José described as his proudest moment had nothing to do with the baseball diamond. His proudest moment was becoming an American citizen, which happened just last year.
Rubio read a quote from Fernandez after receiving his citizenship:
“This one is my most important accomplishment. I am an American citizen now. I am one of them. I consider myself now to be free. I think this amazing country for giving me the opportunity to go to school here and learn the language, and pitch in the major leagues. It is an honor to be a part of this country, and I respect it so much.”
“José knew. He knew how fortunate and blessed he was and we are. He knew how improbable his journey was … from a Cuban prison to a Major Leagues clubhouse. From living in a communist nightmare to living the American dream,” Rubio said passionately on the Senate floor. “This is why José’s death has hit so many so hard.”
“José’s story was our story,” he continued. “Because he reminds so many in my community of someone they know: a brother, or a son, or of a nephew. José represented not just all of us who are fortunate enough to live our own American dream, he represents countless others who never made it.”
“José didn’t just belong to Cuban Americans … José Fernández was the pride of Miami, but he belonged to every fan who loved to watch him pitch. When Miami saw José on the mound, they saw more than just a great athlete. They saw all their hopes and dreams and aspirations — all we are and all we could be, and we said to ourselves: This is what the American dream looks like, and boy is the American dream alive and well. This young man meant a lot to us for different reasons and in different ways. And now, just as quickly as he came into our lives … he is gone.”
In his closing remarks, Senator Rubio stated: “José Fernández made Tampa’s Alonzo High better. He made the Miami Marlins better. He made all of baseball better. He made Miami and Tampa better. And the way he lived his life…he reminded all of us how blessed we are to live in this, the greatest nation on Earth. That’s not bad for a 24-year-old kid from Santa Clara, Cuba.”