MIAMI — To the Falls family of Miami, Jose Fernandez was an “inspiration” and a true “role model.”
Ricardo and Maria Falls arrived in South Florida from Cuba during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. The Falls and their children, Natalie, 13, and twins Ricky and Emily, 7, have followed Fernandez’s journey.
“Like us coming over here from a communist country, Jose came over here with so much success,” Ricardo said. “It’s an inspiration.”
The family was outside Marlins Park on Sunday, cutting short their breakfast to arrive early after hearing the devastating news that Fernandez, 24, was killed early Sunday in a boating accident. All but Ricardo was wearing an orange Jose Fernandez jersey and they were clutching memorabilia of Fernandez.
“He to me was a role model,” Natalie said. “He showed us kids that anything is possible.”
Fernandez emigrated from Cuba when he was 15. He tried four times to defect, three times being cut off by the Coast Guard, being sent back to Cuba and imprisoned.
Finally, he made one more a harrowing trip in which his mother fell overboard and Jose jumped into the water to save her.
He became a high school star in Tampa and a first-round draft pick of the Marlins, for whom he quickly became one of the best pitchers in the majors.
John Bradford immediately thought of Fernandez’s journey when he heard about the accident.
“I remember when he got naturalized, I remember the ceremony,” said Bradford, who is from Chattanooga, Tenn., but has lived in Miami. “He was so happy to become a U.S. citizen and do it the right way like he did, risk his life to get to this great country.
“I just can’t believe that ironically he died in a boating accident.”
Bradford arrived at Marlins Park to pick up his Ichiro bat (the team went through with the giveaway for fans who arrived early) when he started hearing reports.
“I didn’t believe it,” he said. “There are a lot hoaxes on social media.”
Bradford said team officials confirmed the news.
“The day has gone downhill from there,” he said. “I don’t want to leave here. I feel I kind of want to stay for a little while.”
Junko Sasaki, 41, from Japan, was overwhelmed with emotion as she lay flowers and a sign next to the gates on the west side of Marlins Park and carried around her Fernandez t-shirt that he signed. She became a fan of the Marlins when the franchise signed Ichiro and quickly also started to admire Fernandez.
Sasaki speaks very little English but when asked for her reaction when she heard the news of Fernandez’s death she said , “I just. … nothing.”
Felipe Zwanzger, 18, of Doral, was carrying a cutout of Fernandez and a signed baseball. Zwanzger has season tickets in a section called “Jose’s heroes.”
Like many, young and old, he was attracted to Fernandez not just because of his prodigious talents, but also because of his out-sized personality and obvious love for playing the game and entertaining fans.
“This guy was more than a baseball player,” Zwanzger said. “You don’t just cheer for him as a baseball player, you cheer for him as a person, that’s what hurts.
“I feel like I lost a family member.”
Maria Falls knows that better than anyone.
“Anybody in the community that’s Cuban you ask ‘Who’s Jose?’ and they know,” Maria said. “To the kids, they look up to him. They say, ‘He made his dream, our dream can come true as well.'”
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