Ask Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez if he is nervous about making his major-league debut Sunday against the New York Mets, and the 20-year-old phenom recalls dodging bullets that were fired at the boat he and his family used to flee Cuba five years ago.
“After that I’m not scared about anything else,” he said Saturday at Citi Field, recalling his family’s defection after three unsuccessful attempts. “I’ve been in jail, I’ve been shot at, I’ve been in the water. I’m not scared to face David Wright. What can he do?”
Wright, the Mets’ All-Star third baseman, might not intimidate Fernandez, but there are two things that do: “Roller-coasters and snakes,” he said.
Pitching comes easily considering that he learned the game as a child without the benefit of a baseball.
“I was throwing rocks. In my neighborhood in Cuba, the streets, they’re not paved, so there’s dirt, rocks,’’ he said. “I would wake up 5 in the morning every day while everybody was sleeping and go get a few pieces of wood and rocks and hit and throw.’’
Fernandez said he eventually used a bat his grandmother, Olga, fashioned from a tree limb with a machete. After she made him breakfast, he would walk with the bat for 15 minutes until he reached an open field.
There, surrounded by farm animals and little else, 5-year-old Jose Fernandez fantasized about playing in a major-league game.
“I would go there for two or three hours and get rocks and play games: ‘OK , leading off, whoever. Second guy, bunt. Third guy, hit a home run.’ ’’
At the time, Fernandez was happy just to fantasize about baseball. But that didn’t mean life was easy.
“Cuba, like everybody knows, is stuck in 1959 — the cars, the games little kids play,’’ he said. “I learned a lot about life. It was hard. My family, they were doing good compared to other people. But even for us it was hard to eat, get clothes.’’
A man who lived three houses away from Fernandez noticed the boy’s passion for baseball and invited him to play organized games with older kids in the neighborhood.
By the time he was 9, Fernandez was playing on a Cuban national youth team with older boys. “And I wasn’t even pitcher back then,’’ he said. “I was a third baseman and shortstop.’’
He said he started pitching when he was 14 — around the same time he and his family started trying to escape.
Their first three tries failed, and Fernandez spent time in jail. But in January 2008, a speedboat took Jose, his mother and sister to Mexico. They spent 36 hours on the seas after ducking a 90-second hail of gunfire form Cuban soldiers on shore as their boat pulled away from the island.
From Mexico, they eventually took a bus to Hidalgo, Texas, where they arrived five years ago this past Friday.
“The first time I touched Texas – April 5th (2008),’’ he said with a smile last week in the Marlins’ clubhouse.
Fernandez and his family settled in Tampa, where he went 30-3 in three seasons at Alonso High School. As a senior he was 13-1 with a 1.35 ERA.
The Marlins drafted him 14th overall in 2011. A year later, he was 14-1 with a 1.75 ERA in a season that began at low-Class A Greensboro and ended in Jupiter in the Class A Florida State League.
In February, Fernandez arrived in Jupiter for spring training with the Marlins. He was assigned to minor-league camp in mid-March, and the plan was for him to start the season at Class AA Jacksonville and perhaps get called up to the majors this summer.
That changed just nine days ago.
Fernandez and several of his minor-league teammates were eating an early dinner in the food court at The Gardens Mall in Palm Beach Gardens when his phone rang. It was Wayne Rosenthal, the Marlins’ minor-league pitching coordinator, telling Fernandez to return to Roger Dean Stadium as soon as possible.
Fernandez thought he had done something wrong.
When he arrived, a telephone was handed to him. He didn’t know that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria was on the line.
“I said, ‘You know you’re in big trouble, right?’ ’’ Loria said, recalling how he teased Fernandez. “He said, ‘I am?’ He didn’t really know anything. I said, ‘You did so well in spring training, we’re going to put you in the major leagues.’ ’’
Fernandez called his mother, Maritza, who lives in Tampa. She burst into tears. Fernandez hung up and sat alone in the car and shed a few of his own.
Then he drove back to the mall. Told about the dress code for Marlins players on the road, he bought three suits at Nordstrom – “gray, navy and black,’’ he said.
Fernandez, who turns 21 on July 31, is in the majors now only because starters Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez went on the disabled list last Sunday.
“If the other guys were healthy, we might not be doing this, but why not?’’ Loria said. “He’s such a different kid. Mature. You get mature pretty quickly when you have his background. Can you imagine having people firing bullets at you?’’
He is not the first pitcher to open a season in the majors after pitching in Class A the previous year. Dwight Gooden did it with the Mets at age 19 in 1984. More recently, Rick Porcello debuted for Detroit at age 20 in 2009 after ending the previous year in the Florida State League.
Fernandez is “not going to be overexposed and he’s not out there to throw 120 pitches,” Loria said. “He’s going to be brought along, intelligently.
“We have to do what we think is right. I can get crapped on for it, but I don’t care.’’
Fernandez — who is scheduled to make his Marlins Park debut next Saturday against Philadelphia — said he isn’t worried about his ability to make the big jump. “I was the youngest one everywhere I went,’’ he said.
His arrival also starts his service-time clock, which means his first year of arbitration will be 2016 and his first year of free agency 2019.
“We’ll deal with it. Doesn’t mean he will be a free agent,’’ Loria said, hinting that the Marlins eventually might try to sign him to a long-term deal.
As Loria spoke to reporters in a hallway at Nationals Park in Washington, Fernandez walked by and stopped to shake his hand. Loria couldn’t help but tease him again.
“What are you doing here?’’ Loria asked. “Welcome aboard.’’