Miami Marlins star Jose Fernandez, one of the most dominant pitchers in Major League Baseball and a hero to Miami’s Cuban community, was killed in a boating crash early on Sunday in Florida, the U.S. Coast Guard said. He was 24 years old.
Fernandez, who as a teenager survived harrowing conditions at sea as he fled Cuba to start a new life in the United States, was one of three men killed when a 32-foot boat collided with a rocky jetty off Miami Beach, the Coast Guard said.
The team canceled its Sunday home game against the Atlanta Braves but dozens of mourners still gathered at a makeshift memorial set up for Fernandez near the entrance to Marlins Park. Many wore his No. 16 jersey and brought flowers, teddy bears and pictures of themselves with the All Star pitcher.
“All of baseball is shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez,” Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “He was one of our game’s young stars who made a dramatic impact on and off the field.”
Emergency crews responded to reports of a boat overturned on a jetty near the Government Cut shipping channel and South Pointe Park at about 3:30 a.m., the Coast Guard said.
Fernandez, who was born and raised in Cuba, tried three time to defect to the United States before arriving in the country at age 15 with his mother.
Cuba’s state-controlled media made no mention of Fernandez’s death on Sunday, a standard practice for those who left the island-nation surreptitiously, even since its communist government restored diplomatic relations with the United States last year.
Tony Diaz, a spokesman for the Cuban Baseball Federation, said the pitcher’s death was “a big loss for global baseball. An already famous youth, he had a promising future.”
The right-hander was drafted in the first round by the Marlins in 2011 and made his major league debut in April 2013. He made the All-Star team that season and won the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
He had a 16-8 record this season for the Marlins and was second in strikeouts in the National League.
Fernandez, with his good looks and on-field charisma, was in many ways a hero to Miami’s sprawling Cuban community.
“His story was our story,” said Miguel Garay, 78, who came to Miami from Cuba’s Pinar del Rio. “There’s such a great tradition of baseball in Cuba and he embodied it better than anyone.”
Havana-born Rene Nodarse, 55, said Fernandez stood out from other Cuban baseball players in Major League Baseball for his clean-cut image. “He had so much passion and joy,” he said. “Today it feels like our whole community has died.”
The bodies of Fernandez and the other two men, who were between the ages of 24 and 27, were found on and underneath the boat, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Lorenzo Veloz said at a news conference. The agency is investigating the cause of the incident.
The identities of the two other victims were not released.
The speed at which the boat was traveling was believed to have played a role in the crash but alcohol and drugs were not considered to be a factor, Veloz said.
(Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in New York and Sarah Marsh in Havana; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Bill Trott)