José Fernández reflects hope, heartbreak of Cuban-American dream

I couldn't tell you all of José Fernández's impressive baseball statistics. But the one stat that always stuck with me was the number four.

Four shots at forever freedom.

José, born in Santa Clara, Cuba, failed in his first three tries at defection. He ended up in jail once when just an adolescent, charged with "being a traitor to Fidel Castro."

But he finally broke free on his fourth attempt in 2008, when he was 15. While on a boat with others in the Gulf of Mexico, Fernández jumped into the water in the darkness of night to save someone who had fallen overboard. He didn't know it when he dove in, but the person he rescued was his mother.

They survived, made it to Mexico, and then took a clandestine bus ride to Texas. This country's "wet-foot-dry-foot" policy involving Cuban exiles gave Fernández and his mom legal cover to stay.

It is that Cuban connection that leaves me so heartbroken at the news of his death. Fernández, along with two other friends, died after their boat hit a jetty in South Florida waters last weekend. He was only 24.

The sea gave him life and then took it away.

That journey from Cuba bonds all Cuban-Americans. I never met José, but I was right there with him for that Freedom Ride. We all were.

My journey wasn't nearly as dramatic. My family left just weeks before I turned 5-years-old under the disguise of "tourists." My family had no intention of coming back.

And there are thousands upon thousands who have risked their lives in makeshift rafts, pursuing an American Dream that is anything but a cliché.

It is why Fernández's death is such a kick in the gut, especially in the South Florida, where emotions run as strong as those shots of espresso we drink in the little plastic cups. That was him. Bouncy, frenetic energy. Passion and joy.

We are José Fernández. His beloved grandmother taught him the game in Cuba. My beloved mother taught me the love for the game as well.

Tears welled in my eyes at a video I saw again this week. Fernández is giving an interview in June of 2013, talking about his abuela, Olga, left behind in Cuba.

"Everything I do is for her," he said. "...hopefully one day she is going to get to see me here."

Unbeknownst to Fernández, the Marlins have used their influence to get Olga to the United States. She was waiting in an adjoining room. She walked in, flanked by TV cameras.

"Oh, my God," Fernández said as they embraced.

Happy tears.

There were no happy tears this week. Only heartbreaking ones, especially for Olga, and Jose's mom, Maritza Fernández. Fittingly, Olga wore his jersey to a memorial service on Wednesday.

As Marlins players surrounded the hearse, ESPN baseball analyst Pedro Gomez broke down sharing his memories of Fernández.

He recalled José telling him that the greatest day of his life was when he became an American citizen.

"Why?" Gomez asked him.

"That's what I risked my life for," he said.

The dichotomy of the Cuban travel experience is stunning. American tourists hopping on luxury ships and sipping mojitos on pleasure trips. Desperate Cubans going in the other direction, risking lives on makeshift rafts.

"He died free," said Eduardo Pérez, an ESPN analyst and another friend of the Fernández family.

We are all bonded by the happiness and heartbreak of the Cuban experience. We sacrifice so much, take so many risks, because the rewards are bountiful.

Fernandez went on to make millions here.

That takes me back to another exile, this one a little boy. He was a relative of a childhood friend of mine. He brought the kid to our home one day. The kid was 8, maybe 9-years-old, and newly arrived from Cuba.

We didn't have much then, but my mom went into her bedroom and came out with a Kennedy half-dollar coin. She tucked it in the boy's hands and smiled. Just a simple, thoughtful gesture; a welcome to his new home.

That's why we love the United States. You don't have to be a millionaire to be happy and free.

I hope and pray José Fernández's family can find comfort in that. Read George Diaz's blog at