On Sunday morning, inside a quiet visitors clubhouse at Comerica Park, the only audible sound emanated from a television set mounted high in the corner.
As baseball grappled with the death of Jose Fernandez, the 24-year-old ace of the Miami Marlins, a group of Royals stood in front of the television, transfixed by a live press conference from Miami, where Fernandez, along with two others, died in a boating accident early Sunday morning.
Among the collection of Royals was Eric Hosmer, a south Florida native who had bonded with Fernandez over their shared Cuban heritage and Miami ties. Hosmer said he hung out with Fernandez at this year’s All-Star Game in San Diego, when the two became more than just acquaintances. On Sunday morning, he was left stunned by the news.
“He’s such a huge influence down there in Miami to those kids, because he was such an energetic person,” Hosmer said. “He brought a lot of passion. He reminds me a lot of Salvador [Perez], with the energy he brings to whatever room he walks in. He was extremely influential down there.”
The news of Fernandez’s death hit hard all across baseball on Sunday as the sport mourned the loss of a right-handed pitcher with Hall of Fame potential and an inspiring back story. Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias, a fellow Cuban, missed Sunday’s game to grieve for his friend. The Tigers and Royals joined baseball in remembering Fernandez with a moment of silence before Sunday’s game.
Fernandez grew up playing baseball in Santa Clara, Cuba, and tried to defect from the country three times during his teenage years. After being jailed for trying to leave the country, he was finally successful after a harrowing fourth attempt. On the trip, he saved his mother from drowning after she fell overboard on their way to Mexico.
The story hit home with Royals designated hitter Kendrys Morales, who defected from Cuba in 2004.
“For anybody that leaves Cuba, it’s not easy to leave your family behind and come over here,” said Royals catching coach Pedro Grifol, who translated for Morales. “But he wants to send his condolences to the family.”
Fernandez landed in Tampa, Fla., and became a high school star at Braulio Alonso High School. He was selected 14th overall in the 2011 draft. Two years later, he won National League Rookie of the Year after posting a 2.19 ERA in 28 starts for the Marlins.
Fernandez’s career was delayed after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2014, but he returned to the Marlins last year, finishing with a 2.92 ERA in 11 starts. In 2016, he was 16-8 with a 2.86 ERA and 253 strikeouts in 29 starts, including a 3-0 victory over the Royals at Marlins Park on Aug. 24.
“It’s not only sad for baseball, but [also] the culture, the family, and the hope that the entire family has,” said Pedro Martinez, the Hall of Fame pitcher and current TBS analyst. “That’s a kid that went through a lot of struggles (to make it). Destiny tells you where you are going to end up. It’s hard for me to believe that this day is going on. A kid so energetic, so happy all the time… all the things we can say about him. More than anything, I understand how the family must feel losing this young baby. Maybe one of the best arms that was ever going to play in the game.”
This year, Fernandez also made his second All-Star Game, where he faced Hosmer at Petco Park. Hosmer recorded an RBI single on his way to MVP honors, and in the coming weeks, the Royals’ first baseman said his cousins back in south Florida wanted to ask about the at-bat.
What was it like, they asked, to face Hernandez?
“We hung out in San Diego this year,” Hosmer said. “We saw him back in Florida when we were down there for the season. It’s extremely sad. I had gotten to know him in San Diego for those couple days out there in the All-Star Game.”
On early Sunday afternoon, Royals general manager Dayton Moore issued a statement, calling Fernandez’s death an “unimaginable tragedy” and sending his “thoughts and prayers” to the Marlins organization.
“He was not only one of the most talented and competitive young men in our game, but he was a compassionate individual who had a zest for life and love for all those he came in contact with,” Moore said.
As the Royals prepared for a series finale in Detroit, the clubhouse took on a somber feel. Hosmer watched coverage of the press conference until he had seen enough. Morales reflected on the death of another native Cuban.
“It’s a very sad day,” Grifol said, translating for Morales. “And even sadder when it’s just from one day to the next. One day he’s here, the next day he’s not.”