By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI (Reuters) – Miami Marlins star Jose Fernandez, one of the most dominant pitchers in Major League Baseball and a hero to Miami’s Cuban community, was killed in a boating crash early on Sunday in Florida, the U.S. Coast Guard said. He was 24 years old.
Fernandez, who as a teenager survived harrowing conditions at sea as he fled Cuba to start a new life in the United States, was one of three men killed when a 32-foot boat collided with a rocky jetty off Miami Beach, the Coast Guard said.
The team, which drafted the pitcher in the first round of the 2011 draft, canceled its Sunday home game against the Atlanta Braves but dozens of mourners still gathered at a makeshift memorial set up for Fernandez near the entrance to Marlins Park.
Many wore his No. 16 jersey and brought flowers, teddy bears and pictures of themselves with the All Star pitcher.
“”He was one of our game’s young stars who made a dramatic impact on and off the field,” Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.
Emergency crews responded to reports of a boat overturned on a jetty near the Government Cut shipping channel and South Pointe Park at about 3:30 a.m. (0730 GMT), the Coast Guard said.
Fernandez, who was born and raised in Cuba, tried three times to defect to the United States before arriving in the country at age 15 with his mother.
Cuba’s state-controlled media made no mention of Fernandez’s death on Sunday, a standard practice for those who left the island-nation surreptitiously, even though its communist government restored diplomatic relations with the United States last year.
Tony Diaz, a spokesman for the Cuban Baseball Federation, said the pitcher’s death was “a big loss for global baseball. An already famous youth, he had a promising future.”
The right-hander, who made his major league debut in April 2013, was a two-time All-Star selection and won the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
Fernandez compiled a 16-8 record this season for the Marlins and was second in strikeouts in the National League. Known for his overpowering fastball, he had already had a franchise season record for strikeouts with 253 this season, and his 12.49 strikeouts per nine innings was the best in both the National and American leagues, according to the MLB.com.
At least two fellow Cuban-born baseball players, Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets, paid tribute to Fernandez by hanging his team jersey in their dugouts before Sunday games.
Fernandez, with his good looks and on-field charisma, was in many ways a hero to Miami’s sprawling Cuban community.
“His story was our story,” said Miguel Garay, 78, who came to Miami from Cuba’s Pinar del Rio. “There’s such a great tradition of baseball in Cuba and he embodied it better than anyone.”
Havana-born Rene Nodarse, 55, said Fernandez stood out from other Cuban baseball players in Major League Baseball because of his clean-cut image. “He had so much passion and joy,” he said. “Today it feels like our whole community has died.”
The bodies of Fernandez and the other two men, who were between the ages of 24 and 27, were found on and underneath the boat, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Lorenzo Veloz said at a news conference. The agency is investigating the cause of the incident.
The identities of the two other victims were not released.
The speed at which the boat was traveling was believed to have played a role in the crash but alcohol and drugs were not considered to be a factor, Veloz said.
(Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in New York and Sarah Marsh in Havana; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Bill Trott)