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Friends, mentors remember Jose Fernandez's competitive spirit

Of the hundreds of pitchers Tampa's Chuck Hernandez has worked with in 30-plus years of coaching in the minors and majors, Jose Fernandez was the one he was closest with, which made Sunday's news so staggering.

"I generally, throughout all the crazy time we've done this, been a relationship kind of guy with most of my players. And this guy was just a little farther ahead," Hernandez said Sunday. "Maybe it was because he needed it. Maybe I was more mature and adult-like, I don't know what it was. We had a special little bond. He didn't have, per se, a very strong male figure in his life. His dad wasn't around. So it was one of those things."

Fernandez, 24, was memorialized throughout the major leagues after his death in a boating accident early Sunday with moments of silence, words of praise, tears of sorrow, numbers and initials scrawled on caps, and jerseys with his No. 16 hung in several dugouts.

He was widely known throughout baseball for being a fierce competitor who openly showed his emotions and might have had more fun than anyone playing.

Hernandez saw that from the start as the pitching coach during Fernandez's 2013 rookie season with the Marlins.

"You know what he dug? He dug the most premier hitter on the other team to come to bat. That's what he loved," Hernandez said. "You know where most pitchers are like, 'I'm not giving that guy anything.' At times it could almost be his curse. We would be like, if there's eight other guys in this lineup that can't touch you, why do want to … ? But you can't stop him. You know what I mean? He wanted (Atlanta's) Freddie Freeman in his prime. He lived for those at-bats, those moments. That's what moved him.

"But in the end that's how the great ones roll, that's how they become great. They love the spotlight, they love the moment, they love the biggest challenge. That's what moved him. To strike me or you out and win a game 2-0, that was okay. But if he did it against (Yasiel) Puig or (Yoenis) Cespedes or Freeman or (Bryce) Harper, that's when you'd really see him turn it on. He was a special cat."

Former Marlins GM and manager Dan Jennings said he also had a unique, "almost fourth son," relationship with Fernandez.

"We used to joke, I asked him if he was reincarnated because he had a knowledge of the history of the game. He played with that passion. And the way he competed on the mound went without saying," said Jennings, now a Nationals executive. "He was one of the most competitive guys I've ever seen in 30 years. And he lived life with that same zest and passion. … You couldn't have a bad day around him."

Former Rays closer Danys Baez, retired and living in Miami, had become close in recent years and provided mentorship and life advice to Fernandez while sharing their bond as Cuban defectors and Tommy John surgery vets.

"We became really good friends, he was like my little brother," Baez said Sunday. "If you think he was a great pitcher like I know you think, that was not even 10 percent of the person that he was. He was one of the most amazing persons I ever met in my life. He was a 24-year-old kid with a 120-year-old heart. He was mature. He was amazing. A good guy, good friend, good family man. What he did for the game was nothing compared to what he did for the community, his family, his friends."

Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., a Jesuit High product who worked out with Fernandez — an Alonso alumnus — in their high school offseasons and remained friends, was among many big-leaguers struggling to process the news.

"I don't really understand why, I don't understand how something like that kind of happens," he told reporters in Houston. "I talked to him about two weeks ago actually, talking about the offseason, ironically enough going fishing, stuff like that."

In the Rays clubhouse at the Trop, former Marlin Logan Morrison was similarly numb.

"I felt like he was invincible," Morrison said. "That's probably why this doesn't feel real. Just the super amount of talent that he had, you don't find that everywhere."

McCullers said the infectious smile often seen on Fernandez's face was his true spirit.

"The epitome of how he kind of lived life," McCullers said. "It's awful that he's gone, but he lived every day he had to the fullest."

Times staff writer Roger Mooney contributed to this report. Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com.

They came to see him

26,938 Average attendance at Marlins home games in 2014-15 when Jose Fernandez pitched.

21,113 Average Marlins attendance in those seasons when anyone else pitched.

Friends, mentors remember Jose Fernandez's competitive spirit 09/25/16 [Last modified: Sunday, September 25, 2016 10:27pm]
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