The baseball world was shocked Sunday morning with the news of the death of Jose Fernandez. The 24-year old Marlins pitcher was a two time all-star, a current 16-game winner, the face of the Marlins, and perhaps the most important baseball player in Florida.
Jose Fernandez was more important than Chris Archer. He was more important than Evan Longoria or Kevin Kiermaier. He was even more important his teammate Giancarlo Stanton. No other Florida baseball player compared to Jose Fernandez.
Many others closer to Fernandez know his story better than I do. For his past, read Jordan Conn’s Grantland article “From Cuba, With Heat“. Fernandez’s story is one of Cuba, Tampa, and finally Miami. If it was only Cuba, it would be enough. If he was only from Tampa, that would also be enough.
But Jose Fernandez was more important than his past. He was the future of Florida baseball.
Fernandez made his debut with the Marlins the year after the Marlins debuted their new ballpark. He was a star from the start. For his career, he was 29-2 at Marlins Park and days he took the mound turned into “Jose Day”s with a higher average attendance than any other pitcher on the Marlins.
In 2015, for example, Jose Fernandez’s starts averaged 3,500 fans above the Marlins average attendance. This chart I created last year showed he was one of the most popular aces in Major League Baseball.
In 2016, while his nine weekday starts drew similar to the Marlins average weekday attendance, Fernandez’s six weekend starts drew over 2,500 more fans per game than the Marlins average weekend attendance.
People wanted to see Jose Fernandez pitch. He brought people to the ballpark.
As of 2013, there were nearly 2 million Cubans in America. Since relations with Cuban began to warm in 2014, Cuban immigration has increased. In Florida, there are over 1.2 million residents from Cuba, nearly 6.5% of the state population.
Of the 850,000 Cubans born in the US, over 600,000 were under the age of 40. With a passion for baseball high among the Cuban population, this group is the future of baseball fans. Jose Fernandez was ideal to attract this demographic.
Nearly half of all Cubans in America live in the Miami area. Many could personally relate to Jose Fernandez’s story. Or they knew someone who had also made the tumultuous journey from the beaches of Cuba to the shores of America. As Dan LeBatard wrote, Jose Fernandez made them care about the person in the uniform. Through that, they also had a connection to the uniform itself.
They are a large reason 23% of Hispanics in Florida are Marlins fans.
Despite winning two World Series in their first 20 years as a franchise, the Marlins never had a transcendent player. They had Gary Sheffield, but he was too moody. They had Dontrelle Willis, but he quickly lost his mojo. They had Miguel Cabrera before he was a sure-fire Hall of Famer. They had Hanley Ramirez before he stopped hustling.
None of them were as infectious as Jose Fernandez. On his current path, he would have been the first Hall of Famer in a Marlins hat. Despite what Ken Rosenthal and other MLB writers wrote, there was no way the Marlins were ever going to trade Jose Fernandez. He had to remain a Marlin forever. He was too important.
The Marlins are currently in their third era of being playoff contenders. They are finally spending smartly. They have one of the best outfields in the Majors. They have a new ballpark, a new manager, and recently signed Giancarlo Stanton to a monster long-term contract. They were building a nucleus. In a land of splintered fanbases, it was again cool to be a Marlins fan.
The competition for fans is incredibly tough in Florida. With two Major League Baseball teams, two NBA teams, 3 NFL teams, 2 NHL teams, 5 major colleges, 14 Minor League baseball teams, and several other teams in several other sports, Florida is closer to oversaturation than any team having a monopoly of interest.
Jose Fernandez was a Florida star before he even stepped foot on the mound at Marlins Park. His exploits at Alonzo High School etched him in the annals of Tampa sports history. That he was drafted by the Marlins was fate looking out for Florida sports. The perfect player for a city doesn’t come along very often. LeBron James for Cleveland. Derek Jeter for the Yankees. Jose Fernandez for the Marlins.
As Jose Fernandez was poised to grow, so to was the Marlins fanbase.
In death, Jose Fernandez will always be a Marlin and he will always be a superstar. He will be remembered as much for what he did as for what he could have become. The fact that the hearts of thousands of fans were broken yesterday was a testament to how important Fernandez had already become to baseball, to Tampa, to Miami, and to Florida.
Baseball in Miami will continue without Jose Fernandez. Life has a way of moving on. But the sun will never be as bright over Marlins Field.