Baseball ace Jose Fernandez tried and failed three times to defect from Cuba before he made it to Florida

The ace hugs his grandmother.
The ace hugs his grandmother.
Image: USA Today Sports via Reuters/Steve Mitchell
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José Fernández, a star pitcher for the Miami Marlins Major League Baseball team, died early this morning in a boating accident. The 24-year-old was an exceptional talent. And his tragic death off of Miami Beach recalls how it took him repeated attempts by boat to get from Cuba to the US to begin with.

Fernández was named Rookie of the Year by the league in 2013, only five years after he first saw Miami, Florida from the sea.

The Cuban Adjustment Act—often called the “wet foot dry foot” policy—allows Cubans to apply legally to become permanent residents in the US the moment they set foot on land, even if they’ve arrived illegally.

A 2013 profile in Grantland recounted how Fernández, who was born in Santa Clara, Cuba, made attempt after attempt to defect to the US under this policy. He and his mother tried three times to take the usual route for defectors from the north of Cuba by boat to Florida. None was successful, and Fernández was locked up in a Cuban prison at age 14 for a few months for trying to defect.

When Fernández was 15, he and his mother tried another tactic, from the southern side of the country, and in April 2008 arrived in the US by way of Mexico.

Jordan Ritter Conn recounts one dramatic moment when Fernández’s mother was swept off their boat from Cuba by a wave:

A spotlight shone on the water, and Fernandez could make out his mother thrashing in the waves about 60 feet from the boat. She could swim, but just barely, and as Fernandez pushed his way toward her, he spat out salty water with almost every stroke. Waves—“stupid big,” he says—lifted him to the sky, then dropped him back down. When he reached his mother he told her, “Grab my back, but don’t push me down. Let’s go slow, and we’ll make it.” She held his left shoulder. With his right arm—his pitching arm—he paddled. Fifteen minutes later, they reached the boat. A rope dropped, and they climbed aboard.

Fernández went on to pitch for Alonso High School in Tampa, Florida, and joined the MLB in 2013. He played in the All-Star Game this year, and became a US citizen last year.

Earlier this week Fernández posted a photo on Instagram of his girlfriend pregnant.

Here’s a video with highlights of his pitching from earlier this season: