3/18/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Cuban prospect Fernandez displaying perseverance
Marlins farmhand overcame tough circumstances to defect to United States in 2008
By Tracy Ringolsby / MLB.com
JUPITER, Fla. -- Talk to Jose Fernandez about the big leagues, and he makes it very clear that it is not a goal. It is an expectation.
"I don't give up until I accomplish what I set out to do," Fernandez said.
Don't believe him?
Well, consider that Fernandez, who won't turn 21 until July 31, successfully defected from Cuba at the age of 15. It was his fourth attempt to get to the United States.
The speedboat took Fernandez, his mother and sister on a 36-hour trip to Mexico in January 2008. They bused to Hidalgo, Texas, and eventually were reunited with his father, who had made the escape two years before the rest of the family, and settled in Tampa, Fla.
Oh, and during that speedboat trip to freedom, Fernandez jumped into the water to save a woman who fell off the boat. Turned out it was his mother.
"I didn't realize it until she was safe," he said. "I just saw someone go overboard. I had to make a decision. I didn't have time to think about it."
The three previous times Fernandez attempted to defect, he was captured and sent back to Cuba, where he was imprisoned. It was two weeks the first time, he said, a month the second, and two months the third.
"You got treated like an animal," he said.
There was no change of clothes. What Fernandez wore when he was imprisoned is what he wore until he was released. There was no shelter. Rain or shine, the prisoner dealt with the elements. Not once, however, was he deterred from his plan to reach the United States.
"I never give up," said Fernandez. "I wanted to come to the United States to play baseball. I wanted to play in the United States."
Fernandez still has ties to Cuba. Watching the Cuban team in the World Baseball Classic, he said, brought back memories because he had played on youth teams with most of the players representing his homeland. And Fernandez still has family back in Cuba, including his grandmother.
"We try to talk by phone every Sunday," he said. "There are cousins, aunts and uncles. They all try to go to one home so we can talk. It is expensive, but it is worth it."
Fernandez has no second thoughts about his defection. Five years later, his conviction that he will play in the big leagues has been reinforced.
Fernandez is ranked the No. 1 prospect in the Marlins organization and No. 7 in baseball according to MLB.com's 2013 Prospect Watch. The Marlins' first-round Draft choice, the 14th player taken overall, in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft has been impressive enough in his one-plus professional seasons that he was invited to Spring Training this year.
Sent down last week so that he could get the proper preparation for the start of the Minor League season, Fernandez shrugged the detour off. Determined as he is, he also is realistic.
"I'm 20 years old," Fernandez said. "I can't be upset. I knew I was going to get sent down, I was ready for it. ... They told me, 'Hopefully this is the last time.' "
Most likely it is. Fernandez is 14-2 with a 2.02 ERA in 27 Minor League starts. He split the 2012 season between low Class A Greensboro and high Class A Jupiter, going 14-1 with a 1.75 ERA in 25 starts. Fernandez struck out 158 batters and walked 35 in 134 innings. He was a participant in the Futures Game as part of All-Star Week.
Fernandez was selected as the Marlins' Minor League Pitcher of the Year, and despite his protest, he was presented the award prior to a big league game at Marlins Park in September.
"I hadn't earned the trip [to a Major League park]," he explained.
This year, Fernandez figures to open this season at Double-A, waiting for the call to the big leagues.
He has the physical "stuff." He stands 6-foot-2 and is listed at 240 pounds on the Marlins' website. His four-seam fastball touches 99 miles per hour but sits in the 94-95 mph range, and he will mix in a sinking two-seam fastball that is a few miles per hour slower. He has a quality curveball in the mid-80s range, shows signs of a slider and has a changeup that promises to be a plus pitch.
More importantly, Fernandez has the mental stuff. He is committed.
Once Fernandez escaped to the United States, he did not sit back and relax. He knew that was only the first step toward the big leagues. As well as pitching Alonso High School in Tampa to two state titles in his three years in high school, Fernandez worked to assimilate into the culture and make sure he understood how the American society operated.
He speaks flawless English, never hesitating as he answers questions, and never feigning a lack of comprehension.
"I took three English classes each of my three years in high school because I wanted to be able to communicate, I wanted to have an idea of how the country works," Fernandez said. "It is a lot different [from Cuba]."
The goal, however, has not changed for Fernandez since he first began to think about defecting to the United States.
"I want to be the best," he said. "I don't want to be the second-best. I want to be the best."
Given Fernandez's determination and ability to accomplish his goals, there is no reason to think he will be anything less than the best.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.