TAMPA — The brand new white Nissan GT-R rolled to a stop next to the batting cage that is next to the baseball field at Alonso High. Out stepped its new owner, Jose Fernandez, the man of the hour on this night.
The 2011 Alonso graduate, who pitched the Ravens to a pair of state baseball titles before being drafted 14th overall by the Miami Marlins after his senior year, was quickly engulfed by former teammates and coaches, teachers and friends. He posed for pictures and signed autographs.
An hour later, Alonso baseball coach Landy Faedo and the program retired Fernandez's No. 16.
“It's something you always got in your heart,” Fernandez, 21, said of his high school.
The place means so much to Fernandez that he often drives there on a quiet Sunday afternoon, parks next to the batting cage and walks around the athletic fields and the woods beyond the baseball field.
“I talk to myself. I like to do that,” Fernandez said. “To me that stuff is important, the one-on-one with me. I love it.”
It is one way in which Fernandez tries to stay grounded after turning baseball on its ear last season.
He jumped to the big leagues at age 20, skipping both Double-A and Triple-A, and was one of the dominant pitchers in the National League, winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award and finishing third in the NL Cy Young Award voting after going 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA.
He pitched a perfect inning in the All-Star game.
He gave Marlins fans reason to dream.
“I never really heard much about him going into the (2013) season, but he's going to be one of the names you're never going to forget,” Rays right-hander Chris Archer said.
Fernandez struck out eight in five innings against the New York Mets in his major-league debut. He really opened eyes a month later when he struck out nine and allowed one hit in seven scoreless innings against the Phillies in Philadelphia.
“He pitched like a seven-, eight-year veteran. Strike one command. Command of all pitches. Throwing the breaking ball for strikes behind in the count. He did what 20-year-olds don't do, and I coached many of them,” Marlins pitching coach Chuck Hernandez said. “They're not supposed to be quite that far along at 20. That was the game where I said this could go a lot of places now. That was a defining moment for me.”
Fernandez expected to pitch in the big leagues last season. He figured he would start the year in Double-A, then make the jump to the majors for the talent-starved Marlins.
Hernandez said Fernandez outpitched all the other pitchers in camp.
“I didn't pay too close attention to him because I didn't want to irritate myself,” Hernandez said.
Then came injuries to Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez, and suddenly the Marlins were short on starting pitchers. During a meeting with manager Mike Redmond, the coaching staff and the Marlins front office, Hernandez was asked for his thoughts on Fernandez beginning the year in the majors.
“I said, 'I think he's the best pitcher we got.' When we sent him back to minor-league camp, we sent out the best pitcher we got,” Hernandez said.
Fernandez made 28 starts during his rookie year. He was shut down in mid-September after throwing 172ª innings because the Marlins wanted to protect his arm.
One of his worst outings came May 27 when he allowed five hits, seven runs (four earned), struck out six and walked three in 3ß innings against the Rays at Tropicana Field.
Still, Rays manager Joe Maddon was very impressed with what he saw from Fernandez.
“His delivery was exceptional. And the ball coming out of his hand, I couldn't believe what I was seeing,” Maddon said. “You don't need a gun to scout that. You just see that. I had no idea what he was throwing. The first pitch he threw I said, 'Holy Cow!' because it was just different. You're not going to see another kid like that for a while. Not like that, and at that age.”
Young pitchers struggle. They lose the feel for their fastball, for their breaking pitch. They over-throw. They come out of their delivery. They get intimidated. They fall apart.
Fernandez was different. He pitched beyond his years, beyond his experience.
“It's hard to expect anything like that,” Hernandez said. “I expected him to be good, though, I did expect that. I didn't expect him to go out and get his head knocked in or anything like that. But I thought it would be a lot more challenging.”
When asked if he surprised himself with anything he accomplished last season, Fernandez said, “Not at all, and I'm not trying to sound cocky. I'm not trying to say, 'Oh, I'm the best,' because I'm not. I worked hard for everything I accomplished and I got a lot of luck. There's a lot of luck included because it is.”
It took Fernandez four tries to successfully leave Cuba. He was jailed at one point for trying to defect. He was shot at. He had to dive into the Gulf of Mexico to save his mother from drowning during his last attempt.
Before his major-league debut, Fernandez told reporters who cover the Marlins that he fears only snakes and roller coasters. Big-league hitters? Not so much.
“He doesn't lack confidence,” Hernandez said.
Yet, Fernandez was somewhat humbled by his first year in the major leagues.
“It's an honor,” he said. “It's an honor to play on the same field that hall of famers and all those guys who played before.”
And earning a spot on the National League All-Star team after pitching in only 18 big-league games?
“When they told me I was going to All-Star game, I'm like, 'What? Me?' ” he said.
Fernandez came on in the sixth inning and faced Dustin Pedroia, Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis. He retired them in order, getting Pedroia looking at a called third strike, Cabrera to pop to first and Davis swinging at strike three.
“Going to the All-Star game and talking to those guys and being there around 40,000 people and pitching there and facing Pedroia and Cabrera and Davis and striking out two of them and getting a pop out, a clean inning at 20 years old, that was really special, you know,” he said. “And maybe it put a little more confidence in myself. I'm a pretty confident guy, because I know what I can do. But maybe it helped me, 'OK, this is baseball.' ”
All summer, Olga Fernandez climbed to the roof of her house in Cuba so she could listen to her grandson's games on the radio. They were reunited in Miami in November, the day before Fernandez was named the NL Rookie of the Year.
No more radios for Olga. She will watch her grandson pitch on Opening Day from a seat in the stands.
So much of his life has changed, Fernandez said during a quiet moment after the ceremony to retire his number.
“Everything,” he said. “Everything, man. It all started here.”
Fernandez learned to speak English, developed into a big-league prospect, then a first-round draft pick. He received a $2 million signing bonus. He forced himself onto a big-league roster two years after winning a high school state title.
He can see his grandmother on a regular basis.
He drives a sweet ride.
“So many new things,” he said. “And I'm just glad that I'm here. Really glad.”