Good as it gets: Fernandez future face of big leagues
National League Rookie of Year Award winner will play big role in Marlins' turnaround
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Jose Fernandez had done a dozen or so interviews with an assortment of reporters, television stations and networks Monday night. As usual, he'd handled them perfectly, thanking the right people, saying the right thing.
"I'm so blessed," he said at several points.
To hear Fernandez and to watch him is to be amazed that he's all of 21 years old, that his big league career really has hit only about the 15-minute mark. When the interviews were all wrapped up, he still had one more thing to do. No one prompted Fernandez. He just did it.
Before leaving the interview area, Fernandez made his way to an array of television technicians, sound men and producers to thank them for their work. He stepped around the equipment and approached them one by one, shook their hands, smiled, told them he appreciated them showing up.
There are so many reasons the Miami Marlins love this kid that it might be impossible to count them all. Still, on a long, happy day of emotion and celebration, this last gesture said plenty.
Fernandez might already be the face of a franchise, one that has needed to change the conversation about where it was going and how it was going to get there. But that's just the beginning. Fernandez is headed toward being one of the faces of Major League Baseball.
Fernandez stands for everything the sport would like to be, not just because he has a 95-mph fastball and a tremendous presence on the mound, but also his commitment to being a good citizen of South Florida, to being a role model and to giving back any way he can.
There's also the drive and determination and the confidence Fernandez can do absolutely anything he sets out to do.
"He's so special," Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria said.
Loria mentioned Fernandez's smarts and poise, his work ethic and his amazing physical gifts. But the things that probably impress Loria the most are the intangible things, the humility and dignity and the rest.
Some of what Fernandez did last season can be measured with numbers. For 28 starts before the Marlins shut him down, he might have been the best right-handed pitcher in the game. Only Clayton Kershaw had a lower ERA (1.83 versus 1.93), and Fernandez's .182 opponents' batting average was No. 1 in the Majors.
From the beginning, Fernandez told the Marlins he wanted to be involved in the community, that he wanted to interact with kids and visit schools and set an example. He did not do this stuff because anyone told him to. Fernandez did it because it felt right.
There was another part of him on display that not everyone found appealing. At times, Fernandez showed emotion, lots of it. Once when Braves catcher Brian McCann kept fouling off pitches, Fernandez stepped toward home plate and said, "What do I have to throw you to get you out?"
Fernandez said it playfully and with the respect one great competitor shows another. And then late in the season, he rubbed the Braves the wrong way when he responded to some taunts from the Atlanta dugout with a few of his own.
When Fernandez homered in that game, he rounded the bases with a little too much emotion and inexcusably spit toward third base in response to some insults from Atlanta's Chris Johnson. McCann, furious, confronted Fernandez after he crossed home plate and both benches emptied. Fernandez met McCann after the game to apologize.
Fernandez apologized for getting carried away, but the bottom line is that this kid who escaped the oppression of Cuba is living a dream. He's happy beyond words, doing the very thing he has always wanted to do.
Fernandez may have had trouble understanding what the fuss was about. Cuban fans and players are louder and more demonstrative than players at Major League games, but his emotion did not seem contrived or phony. He simply was being himself.
Is there anything wrong with that? Absolutely not, especially because this kid is so good and so honest, because he has given fans in South Florida a great reason to go back to the ballpark.
The Marlins obviously still have work to do after losing 100 games, but in Fernandez and four other kids, they've got the beginnings of what could be a special rotation. Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez and Jacob Turner made the big leagues last season, and 2012 No. 1 pick Andrew Heaney, a 22-year-old left-hander from Oklahoma State, may arrive next season.
The Marlins still need all kinds of offensive help and time for the young talent to figure things out. But few franchises have more young rotation talent than the Marlins. It begins with Fernandez, which is about as good as it gets.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.