A Complicated Legacy: The Death of Jose Fernandez Five Years Later – NBC 6 South Florida

    On September 20, 2016, former Miami Marlins pitcher José Fernández was having a day that many can only dream of.

    On the same day he announced his girlfriend was pregnant with the couple’s first child, he pitched eight shutout innings of baseball in a game he told his teammates was the “best” he had ever pitched.


    Just over 96 hours later, the 24-year-old pitching phenom and cultural hero to many in the Cuban community of South Florida and beyond, died after a boating accident off Miami Beach. Investigators said Fernandez was legally drunk, had cocaine in his system and was behind the wheel when the boat crashed, capsizing and killing all three people on board.

    The tragedy cast a shadow over the life of a young man who was, at the time of his death, one of the best young stars in Major League Baseball, a survivor who had escaped communist Cuba as a teenager.


    Fernández’s fight to reach American soil resonated with many in South Florida. Three previous desertion attempts landed Fernandez in prison before the age of 15. A fourth attempt included saving her mother, who fell overboard, before reaching Mexico in 2007 and arriving in Florida a year later.

    After a prep career at Tampa’s Alonso High School that included two state championships and just one loss as a senior, Fernandez was a first-round pick by the Marlins in June 2011. Less than two years later , was starting out in the big leagues when he was 19 years old.

    In less than four seasons with the Marlins, Fernandez went 38-17 in 76 career starts with a 2.53 era and 589 strikeouts. He was the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year, a two-time all-star, and someone who seemingly had the world in the palm of his hand throwing right hands.

    His career, and his life, would come to an end in the early morning hours of September 25, when the 32-foot boat that Fernandez was piloting crashed into the pier at the government courthouse, the site of several fatal boating accidents that year alone.

    Fernandez died on impact, while Emilio Macias, 27, and Eduardo Rivero, 25, also died at the scene.

    “I went to the ballpark the morning of the accident. We didn’t know what to expect,” said NBC 6 reporter Ari Odzer, who covered the story that day and the days that followed. “A team representative came out to tell us there was going to be a news conference…it wasn’t designed for a funeral, but that’s what it felt like when the players filled the space behind the microphone.”

    former team president david samson addressed the media along with manager don mattingly. the marlins game that day against the atlanta braves would be canceled while the community wept.

    “There were professional athletes, the toughest of the tough, stars like giancarlo stanton and christian yelich, in a state of utter, crushing pain,” odzer said.

    The Marlins would return to action the following day, with all players wearing no. 16 shirts in tribute to Fernandez. A public memorial was held on September 28, and Fernandez’s ashes were scattered at sea on October 2.

    “When I think about that day, that scene always stays with me, along with the overwhelming feeling of loss and sadness,” odzer added. “It was really surreal, a tragedy that still impacts the team and the community today.”

    For the community, it was the loss of an immigrant who achieved the American dream in such a short time. For the Marlins, it began a downward slide that saw the franchise finish a combined 89 games under .500 over the next three seasons.

    Fernández’s legacy would be somewhat tarnished when Miami-Dade County investigators released a final report on the incident in March 2017. The report indicated that speed played a factor in the accident, as the content of Fernandez’s blood alcohol was nearly double the legal limit.

    Claims with Macías and Rivero’s heirs were settled two years later, with an attorney for Fernandez denying toxicology reports showing there was cocaine in his system at the time of the accident.

    In the years that followed, a four-year-old girl named Penelope has had to grow up without her father.

    “Even though he can’t see her, I know that wherever she is, he is watching over her and protecting her,” said Maritza Gomez-Fernandez, Fernandez’s mother, on the first anniversary of the accident in 2017. “Anything you need to know I will be there to tell you because I am the best person to tell your father’s story.”

    Meanwhile, both Marlins fans and those living in the South Florida community have had the same question: what if the events of September 25, 2016 had been different?

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