He hugged his grandmother and it was as if we were hugging our own. He cried in her arms and he shed the same tears Cubans have been shedding for 57 years of family separation.
The video of Jose Fernandez breaking down at the sight of the grandmother he hadn’t seen in the six years since he fled Cuba as a 15-year-old was both joyous and heartbreaking.
It was filmed in the Marlins locker room during Fernandez’s breakout rookie season, but it could have been shot anytime at Jose Marti Airport in Havana or Miami International Airport.
Such scenes have been playing out in all corners of the world since 1959, when Fidel Castro and his militia came to power.
Many of us in the Cuban community have experienced the same distance from loved ones and felt the same pain and isolation.
But it was that joy, that boyish enthusiasm to show his grandmother all the amazing things he had been able to accomplish, that made him special.
It was his simple pat on his grandmother’s head and their nonstop embrace that transformed him from Jose Fernandez, Major League pitcher, to Joseito, the doting grandson.
It was the same routine Cubans have been following for generations. The realization of seeing someone you had been separated from for years, the hug and then the step back to take it all in again. The look at the family member or friend again to ensure that no government or law can take away the moment. And then the second hug, usually stronger and much longer, when all the weight of decades of separation vanish.
Fernandez took his grandmother out to the mound where he had so much success and asked her if she wanted to throw to home plate.
“It’s far,” he said.
“It’s not far,” his grandmother replied.
They could have easily have been talking not about the 60 feet, six inches from the rubber to the plate, but the 90 miles that separate Cuba and Florida. For many of us on either shore, what seems so close geographically is really a world away.
Fernandez’s death in a boating accident off the shores of Miami is uniquely painful for Cubans on both sides of the Caribbean because we know the difficulty of leaving the island of your birth, the harrowing ordeal of finding safe passage, and the bumpy road to assimilation.
And when we finally make it, no matter if you are a Major League pitcher or an electrician like my father, it should endure. It shouldn’t end so soon.
That is what makes his death so hard for Cubans to deal with. There was still so much that he had to give. There was still so much joy he was meant to provide us. He had so many years left of making us feel pride in his accomplishments. Of being mentioned in the same breath as Luis Tiant, Tony Perez and Minnie Minoso and other Cuban baseball greats.
I never knew Jose Fernandez. I never saw him pitch in person. But he was part of many Cubans’ extended family. It felt like he was that successful, talented cousin that would show up at your Nochebuena gathering with great stories and a bigger smile.
You felt like you had shared your lechon with him and rolled your eyes together when the older generation would start talking politics and the good old days.
After news of his death broke Sunday morning, I exchanged text messages with a friend of mine who had covered Fernandez and had spent time with his family. He confirmed what many of us had seen on our social media feeds and television screens.
“He was what you thought he was. Almost too good to be true,” my friend wrote.
Que Dios te bendiga, Jose y que en paz descanses. Te vamos a extrañar.
(God Bless you, Jose and rest in peace. We will miss you.)