My tenth and final book was just published, by McFarland & Company. Entitled Baseball’s Who’s Who of What Ifs, it features forty players who arguably were on track for a Hall of Fame career, before circumstance, injury, or tragedy derailed them. There are also the stories of 108 “honorable mentions,” and 16 others who made the Hall despite abbreviated careers.
Here’s a sample from the book, its most recent entry, José Fernandez.
On September 20, 2016, the Marlins’ José Fernandez pitched eight shutout innings, striking out 12, walking none, and allowing only three hits, to earn a 1-0 victory over the Washington Nationals. He told a teammate it was the best game he ever pitched.
It was also the last game he ever pitched.
José Delfin Fernandez y Gomez was born July 31, 1992, in Santa Clara, Cuba. Like many people trapped on that communist island, José’s family longed to escape to America. His stepfather, Ramon, made it in 2005, settling in Tampa, Florida. Over the next three years, José and his mother, Maritza, made four daring attempts to escape by boat. One resulted in three months of jail time for the teenager. The fourth, in April 2008, included stepsister Yadenis and her mother. Maritza fell overboard at one point; 15-year-old José jumped into the Gulf of Mexico to save her life. After three days, the foursome reached Mexico. From there, they made their ways to Tampa to rejoin Ramon.
Fernandez had already showed talent for baseball, and in Tampa he hooked up with a man named Orlando Chinea. The 51-year-old trainer had been the Cuban national team’s pitching coach in the 1990s, and had also coached four years for Japan’s Yomiuri Giants. In Cuba, Chinea had tutored future major league stars Jose Contreras and brothers Livan and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez. Chinea had also escaped from Santa Clara, Cuba in 2008, with future major leaguer Kendrys Morales. He put Fernandez on a strenuous, unorthodox training regimen which he would continue for the rest of his life. It included running while wearing a snorkel, pushing an SUV up to 500 feet, and swinging an axe 400 times per session. Chinea also taught Fernandez the language and customs of his new country. José would become a U.S. citizen in 2015.
Fernandez enrolled in Braulio Alonso High School in Tampa, and made their Ravens’ baseball team as a sophomore in 2009. By the end of the season, he was hitting 94 mph on the radar gun and leading the Ravens to the state title. The next year, Fernandez was a cocky young athlete, sometimes showing up opposing players and rebelling against authority. It was Chinea who would dispense tough love to get him back on track.
As a senior, Fernandez went 13-1 with two no-hitters and a 1.35 ERA en route to another state title. The Marlins chose him in the first round of the 2011 draft (14th player selected), and he signed with them for a $2 million bonus on August 15. He made one brief appearance each in the Gulf Coast and New York-Penn Leagues before the year was over.
Fernandez was a big right-hander, standing 6’2” and weighing between 215 and 245 pounds. His smooth mechanics produced a monstrous 8½-foot stride, as compared to the five feet averaged by other pitchers. His repertoire included a four-seam fastball, a splitter, a hard curveball, all with electric stuff (occasionally reaching 100 mph), and a change-up.
In 2012, Fernandez pitched 14 games for Greensboro in the South Atlantic League, and 11 with Jupiter in the Florida State League. His combined stats were phenomenal: a 14-1 record and 1.75 ERA, with 158 strikeouts and just 89 hits allowed in 134 innings.
The Marlins figured Fernandez, 20, would start the 2013 season in Double-A. But due to injuries to some of their starters, he made the jump all the way from A-ball to the parent club, becoming the youngest player in the majors. On a team which would finish with a 62-100 record, Fernandez would emerge as a shining hope for the future. He made his big league debut against the Mets on April 7, 2013, allowing just three hits, one walk, and one run in five innings, while fanning eight.
Fernandez continued pitching well, though he didn’t have much to show for it in the first half of the season: a 5-5 record despite a fine 2.75 ERA. Nevertheless, he made the NL All-Star team, and pitched a flawless inning at Citi Field on July 15, striking out Dustin Pedroia and Chris Davis, and retiring Miguel Cabrera on an infield pop-up in between.
After the break, Fernandez was lights-out: a 7-1 record with a 1.32 ERA. He recorded 13 strikeouts against Pittsburgh on July 28, and 14 more vs. Cleveland on August 2, becoming the first pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2004 to notch 13+ K’s in consecutive starts. After Fernandez reached a team-imposed innings limit on September 11, the Marlins shut him down for the rest of the season.
Fernandez wound up leading the NL with a microscopic .182 opposing batting average (lowest since Pedro Martinez in 2000), or just 5.79 hits allowed per nine innings. José also finished second in ERA (2.19), strikeouts per nine innings (9.75), and adjusted pitcher runs and wins, and third in pitcher WAR (6.3) and WHIP. His 176 ERA+ was the best by any rookie in the 101 years since ERA became an official stat. Fernandez easily won NL Rookie of the Year honors, and finished third in Cy Young Award voting.
Fernandez also showed he could handle a bat, hitting .220 – better than the average of batters who faced him – and homering in his final at bat of the season. But when he styled while completing the circuit, he incited a bench-clearing brawl between the Braves and Marlins. Afterward, Miami manager Mike Redmond dressed the rookie down for his disrespectful behavior. “He’s a young kid and he’s going to be one of the top pitchers in this league for a long time,” Redmond said. “You want your pitchers and players to be judged for the way they pitch and the way they compete, not the theatrics.”
Fernandez was apologetic, but explained that his heritage played a role: “Baseball in Cuba’s a lot more different, a lot more emotion, a lot more passion. At the end of the day it’s a game, and you’re supposed to have fun, right?”
This was an example of the different sides of Fernandez’s personality. Adjectives used to describe him included charismatic, guileless, child-like, energetic, confident, joyful, hard-working, and intense – yet there was often a “but” attached. “There were two Joses, the combustible child and the hardest worker they’ve ever seen,” explained one feature article, saying he was “capable of greatness, yes, but also self-destruction.” As his former high school principal, Loui Diaz, said, “He can be an idiot. He can be stupid. But at heart he’s a good kid, capable of great humility.”
Fernandez picked up in 2014 right where he left off the previous year. He had nine strikeouts and zero walks on Opening Day, joining Hall of Famers Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson, Fergie Jenkins, and Steve Carlton as the only pitchers to do that, according to the Associated Press. Fernandez was named NL Pitcher of the Month for April, after going 4-1 with a 1.59 ERA. He was leading the major leagues in strikeouts through May 9, when something went wrong in a game against San Diego. His fastball velocity dropped from 95 to 91 mph in the fifth inning, and he was shelled for four runs with none out in the sixth before being removed. Afterward, the team doctor found a “significant tear” in Fernandez’s pitching elbow, recommending Tommy John surgery. Fernandez went under the knife at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles on May 16.
True to his nature, Fernandez worked his tail off to make it back. After five minor league rehab appearances, he returned to the Marlins on July 2, 2015. Fernandez had another setback when he suffered a right biceps strain on August 7, missing five weeks. He wound up pitching only 65 innings in the majors that year, though he went 6-1.
Fernandez had a rocky start to the 2016 season, giving up five runs in five-and-two-thirds innings (despite 13 strikeouts) on April 6 to pick up the first home loss of his career. Fernandez had been 17-0 with a 1.40 ERA in 26 starts at Miami through 2015, setting a post-1900 record for most consecutive home wins to start a career. José was 1-2, 4.37 through April 23, but then reeled off eight wins in a row. His average velocity of 95.3 mph was even faster than before his surgery. José Fernandez was all the way back.
Fernandez pitched in his second All-Star Game on July 12 at Petco Park, going an inning-and-a-third, including a strikeout of Mike Trout. Six days later, José notched his 500th career strikeout in his 400th inning, setting a major league record for fastest to reach that milestone. Among the six most similar pitchers at the same age are Tom Seaver, Addie Joss, and Roger Clemens.
At about 3:30 AM on September 25, 2016 (the same day that golf legend Arnold Palmer died), the U.S. Coast Guard discovered the capsized wreckage of a 32-foot Sea Vee motorboat named “Kaught Looking” off Miami Beach. The boat had slammed into a stone jetty at 66 mph, ejecting and killing all three passengers, none of whom was wearing a life vest. One of them was José Fernandez, the owner and pilot of the boat. It was later revealed that Fernandez had cocaine and alcohol – twice the legal limit – in his system. Had he survived, he would have faced criminal charges.
The baseball world mourned. The Marlins cancelled their game that day and retired his #16, and the rest of the season players around the majors sported formal and informal tributes to the likeable, talented young pitcher with the .691 career win percentage and 2.58 ERA. Among Fernandez’s survivors were his girlfriend, Maria Arias, expecting their first child (Penelope Jo Fernandez was born February 24, 2017). Maria had texted one of the passengers that night, saying that the couple had been arguing. “He’s been drinking and is not in the best state of mind,” she warned.
Fernandez finished his final season leading the NL with 12.88 strikeouts per nine innings. He was also second in strikeouts, fifth in wins, and seventh in ERA, earning 18 points in Cy Young Award voting – and following Lyman Bostock as the only men to receive votes for a major award after their deaths. In a rude irony, Fernandez also received the 2016 Players’ Choice Award for NL Comeback Player of the Year.
More irony came from a 2015 tweet by Fernandez, recalled soon after the accident: “If you were given a book with the story of your life, would you read the end?”