All this morning baseball fans have been mourning the death of Jose Fernandez. The loss is incredibly tragic for so many reasons: 24 years is too short a time for anyone to experience this sad, beautiful world; he was truly a transcendent talent, with the potential of being one of baseball's all-time greats; he announced only five days ago that his fiancé was pregnant with the couple's first child.
Fernandez's death is particularly heart-wrenching because of the risks he had to take simply to get to the United States to have a chance to play in the majors. Born in Santa Clara, Cuba, Fernandez successfully defected from his native country when he was 15, journeying by boat with his mother and others from Cuba to Mexico. It was his fourth attempt at defecting, and during the trip Jose rescued his mother from drowning after she was tossed from the boat. The story goes that Fernandez was not at first aware it was his mother he was saving; he simply jumped into the water when he realized one of his fellow passengers had fallen overboard.
This morning I'm reminded of an interview Fernandez did on MLB Network in 2013, after his stellar rookie season with the Marlins. During the interview the All-Star pitcher explained that his grandmother was the inspiration for his baseball career: "My mom doesn't know as much about baseball as my grandma. My grandma is a baseball freak."
At the time he had not seen his grandmother in the five years since he defected, and in one of those made-for-TV moments that you just can't be mad at, Fernandez meets his grandmother for the first time as a major leaguer. They cry and hug before moving to the Marlins Park indoor batting cages where Olga Fernandez pitches to her grandson in an impromptu game of pepper.
The concept of family is central to baseball lore—fathers and sons having a game of catch and whatnot—and it all gets a little mawkish in large doses. But it's clear that family was genuinely at the core of Jose Fernandez's relationship with baseball, and that that family gave him the support necessary to turn him into the kind of player who brought joy to so many fans. Our thoughts are with that family this morning.