Jose Fernandez attempted four times to leave Cuba before finally making it to the United States at age 15.
Jose Fernandez was an amazing pitcher, but the fact that he was able to pitch in the majors at all was even more incredible.
Fernandez, who was born in Cuba, has spoken openly about his journey to the United States. Jordan Ritter Conn detailed Fernandez’s defection for Grantland in 2013.
Fernandez was born in Cuba and his stepfather, Ramon Jimenez, left for the U.S. when Jose was 13. It took him 14 tries, but Jimenez eventually made it to the States and settled in Tampa.
Two years later, Fernandez and his mother decided to attempt to join Jimenez in America.
They left by boat for Miami, but each of their first three attempts was unsuccessful. The U.S. Coast Guard spotted the boat and the defectors were sent back to Cuba, where Fernandez spent a year in prison for the crime of attempting to leave the country.
For their fourth attempt, Fernandez and his family decided to take a different route. This time, instead of going north to Miami, they went west to Mexico.
At one point, a wave carried one member of the party overboard. Fernandez saw the person floating about 60 feet from the boat and jumped in to retrieve them. It was his mother, Maritza.
“I have always been a good swimmer, since I was a kid, which is why I am always alert,” Fernandez told the Miami Herald in 2013. “I dove to help a person not thinking who that person was. Imagine when I realized it was my own mother. If that does not leave a mark on you for the rest of your life, I don’t know what will.”
The 15-year-old Fernandez swam through the waves with Maritza clinging to his back and they reached the boat some 15 minutes later.
Fernandez arrived in Mexico and traveled to a town on the Texas border, where he was able to enter the United States. He and his family joined his stepfather in Tampa and Fernandez quickly became known as a pitching phenom.
Three years later, Fernandez was drafted by the Marlins in the first round and given a $2 million signing bonus. Two years after that, he was in the majors.