When Jose Fernandez called Tampa with the news — at age 20, he had earned a spot in the Miami Marlins' pitching rotation — his mother wept.
Fernandez wanted to cry, too.
“There are times when I almost can't believe what has happened,” said Fernandez, the former Alonso High School standout. “It's like I'm in shock. But it's what I've always wanted. I want to be the best.”
That quest begins today at New York's Citi Field, where Fernandez is scheduled to start against the Mets.
Is he ready?
Fernandez, the 14th overall pick in the 2011 baseball draft, has worked just 138 1/3 professional innings and hasn't pitched above Class A, beginning last season with the Greensboro Grasshoppers and finishing with the Florida State League's Jupiter Hammerheads.
“You've got to remember that Jose isn't your everyday kind of guy,” Marlins pitching coach Chuck Hernandez said.
It took Fernandez four attempts to escape Cuba by boat. Once, he was brought back to a prison. Another, he remembers the boat being surrounded by sharks. He was 15 when he arrived in America.
But at Alonso, where the Ravens won two state titles in his three seasons, he pitched like a man, hitting the mid-90s with his fastball and twisting batters into the ground with his breaking stuff. In minor-league ball last season, he was a combined 14-1 with a 1.75 ERA, 35 walks and 158 strikeouts in 134 innings.
Is he ready?
The Marlins think so. Injuries to Nathan Eovaldi and Hernandez Alvarez, who were ticketed for the rotation, reinforced that belief. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria called Fernandez with the franchise's plans.
“We understand the asset we have, and the value of him, and his age, and we're going to do whatever we can to do things in his best interests,” Larry Beinfest, Marlins president of baseball operations, told reporters. “This has the potential to have some criticism, saying the guy hasn't pitched in Double A. Some guys are going to be ready at 24 and some guys are going to be ready at 20. I think we're doing this completely with our eyes open.
“But if you have a special guy that's ready to do it, and he's mature mentally and physically, which we believe he is, we want him to get the experience now.”
Alonso coach Landy Faedo said he expected Fernandez in the big leagues this season. For openers, though? Faedo said he's only moderately surprised.
“He has a great opportunity,” Faedo said. “He has a great smile, great charisma. He's exciting. He has a Cuban heritage. He's playing in Miami. He's young and outgoing. This could be a lot of fun.”
Faedo described Fernandez as a “horse.” At times, it was more like an unrestrained colt. In an otherwise low-key fall game before his sophomore season, Fernandez hit a home run. He raced around the bases like he had won the World Series, ripping off his batting helmet and bouncing it off the ground.
Faedo's counsel: Whoa!
“His maturation process has been impressive,” Faedo said. “You love his intensity. You just don't want it to get out of hand.
“As far as his preparation, you don't have to tell him anything. He has been a professional-like player for a while now. He doesn't understand why some of these guys (players) are looking to party. He puts in the work. He's regimented and focused. He was like that in high school.”
Hernandez became the Marlins pitching coach after two seasons at the University of South Florida. Before his senior season, Fernandez committed to USF, providing a backup plan if professional baseball didn't call at the right price.
After watching Fernandez pitch one inning at Alonso, Hernandez left the game. He called USF coach Lelo Prado.
“I told him, 'You're not getting that guy,'” Hernandez said. “He isn't going to any college.”
Hernandez, who was Detroit's pitching coach in 2006 during its World Series appearance, said Fernandez compares favorably to the raw talent and work ethic of Tigers All-Star pitcher Justin Verlander.
“Obviously, God has blessed Jose with a lot of ammunition,” Hernandez said. “The way he goes about it, what he aspires to be, it does remind you of Verlander, even though he has already done it and Jose is still trying to do it.”
Still, Fernandez said he will simplify his approach. It's just like Alonso, he said. The object, regardless of who steps in at the plate, is to get outs. The Marlins will watch him closely. Because of Fernandez's youth and relative inexperience, he will be limited to 150 to 175 innings this season. He will also be working on a pitch limit each game. It's all intended to protect his arm and give him room to grow.
“Whatever they want me to do,” Fernandez said. “I'm living out a dream and I'm going to work like I've always worked.”
“I wouldn't be surprised if he's a big success right away,” Alonso athletic director Brian Grantham said. “I think he's so ready for this. I don't know how you measure the television ratings, but I think (Fernandez's debut) will be off the charts in the Alonso community. Everyone is watching. There's quite a buzz.”
The buzz is reminiscent of 1984 when former Hillsborough High pitcher Dwight Gooden, at 19, made the New York Mets' rotation. The Mets were cautious and protective. But Gooden was ready. He became National League Rookie of the Year. One season later, he was the NL Cy Young Award winner, going 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA.
Fernandez, who will become the 72nd graduate of a Hillsborough County high school to reach the major leagues, would love to join Tampa's MLB luminaries.
Kenny Rogers pitched a perfect game, and Gooden (Dr. K) tossed a no-hitter. Wade Boggs collected 3,010 career hits, joining Al Lopez as a Baseball Hall of Famer. Gary Sheffield had 509 career home runs, and Fred McGriff had 493. Tino Martinez earned four World Series championship rings, and Luis Gonzalez clinched the 2001 title with his ninth-inning single in Game 7. Steve Garvey was the National League's Most Valuable Player. Lou Piniella and Tony La Russa were opposing managers in the 1990 World Series.
“I just want to be the best I can be,” Fernandez said. “That's all I've ever wanted. I'm willing to work for it.”