The box score says there were 402 fans in attendance for the last meaningful game pitched by Jose Fernandez. Eyewitnesses in the Jupiter Hammerheads organization remember it more like 1,000, all spread out around Lakeland’s Joker Marchant Stadium and all fired up for Game 3 of the Florida State League Championship Series.
Doesn’t matter now and it certainly didn’t matter then to Fernandez, who went after the Lakeland Flying Tigers on that September night as if he were performing in a packed major-league stadium and shooting for immediate stardom.
Oh, maybe you’ve heard. Jose is scheduled to do exactly that on Sunday afternoon, starting for the Miami Marlins against the New York Mets at sparkling Citi Field, capacity 41,800.
Because he is in the Marlins organization, where the line between minor-leaguers and the big club is seriously smudged, Fernandez is flying right past Double-A and Triple-A like few kid pitchers have ever been asked to do.
He is 20, younger than former Marlin aces Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis and Livan Hernandez were at the time of their major-league debuts. Matter of fact, even Stephen Strasburg, the arm of the hour, was made to turn in a handful of Triple-A starts before making his first big splash for Washington at 21.
Ready or not, Miami’s front office is rolling the dice with Fernandez. On the final day of spring training he was plucked from the minor-league camp and added to the opening-day roster. Personnel problems contributed, with Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez on the 15-day disabled list, but let’s be honest. The Marlins, stripped down and headed for the cellar, are in need of a positive headline or two.
There’s none of the usual seasoning here, but then there was none with Dwight Gooden, either. He went from 19-4 with 300 strikeouts for Class-A Lynchburg in 1983 to 17-9 and 276 strikeouts with the Mets the following year. On rare occasions, and Doc was too rare for words, talent is just talent.
A thirst for battle, however, is the ingredient that Fernandez has in ample supply. Andy Haines, manager of the Hammerheads, experienced that whenever he went to the mound to lift Fernandez after five innings of work in support of the organization’s regimented pitch-count restrictions.
“Every time I would try to let him know we were looking out for his best interests,” Haines said. “Usually, though, there would be a conversation about him wanting to stay in.”
That’s how it went in Lakeland, too, even after Fernandez had boosted the Hammerheads to a 2-1 championship series lead with five shutout innings in Game 3. He wasn’t going to pitch any more after that. With the $2 million signing bonus he got from Miami and a combined record of 14-1 in his one season of Single-A ball at Greensboro and Jupiter, Jose couldn’t have been blamed for renting a car and heading home to Tampa.
Instead, Fernandez stuck around with his Hammerheads teammates through a heart-wrenching loss and then a one-day rain delay prior to the deciding game.
“This shows you what type of kid he is, how he really wants the ball,” Haines said. “He’s in my office begging us to pitch the final game. He’s saying, ‘Give me the ball. I can close this thing out.’ All we could do was smile and say, ‘It’s not gonna happen, kid.’ “
The case of sparkling cider bought by Jupiter to celebrate a championship never got popped. Lakeland took the trophy.
Miami, however, has got the prize, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound right-hander with a mind to make a Mark Fidrych of himself. He goes from a crowd of 402 six months ago to 40,000 on Sunday, from Single-A straight to the Big Apple.
It’s scary. It’s exciting. It’s more than a little desperate, too.
Most of all, releasing Fernandez on the National League gives people an itch to watch the Marlins, and that makes him something of a miracle already.