The NL Rookie Of The Year Is An All Cuban Conquest

There’s nothing much to see in Miami if baseball is your sport of choice. There’s a shiny, new castle of a stadium with no fans to fill it and no superstar power to illuminate the place. 

As unpredictable as sports can be, there are still certain things you can count on. Franchises will hit rough patches of losing that prevents growth. It might last a year. It might linger for 20 years, but ask the Pittsburgh Pirates and they’ll tell you that eventually some flower-power blooms out of that dirt, giving hope for the future.

Rookie pitching sensation Jose Fernandez is the first superstar seed the Marlins have cultivated in a long time. The “Santa Clara Kid” (TSL-named after the small town in Cuba he defected from in 2008) is running neck-and-neck with fellow Cuban, Yasiel Puig for NL Rookie of the Year honors.

While Puig’s bullet-proof bat is cooling down, Fernandez helped his cause by tossing Pedro Martinez-type sickness at the opposition in August, and took home National League Rookie of the Month honors for the second straight month.

Fernandez started six games, went 3-1 with a miniscule 1.15 ERA and struck out 49 batters in 39 innings, including a start against Cleveland where he whiffed 14 sorry suckers. Opponents hit just .158 against son, who prior to 2013 was ranked as the Marlins' best prospect and fifth best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America.

In the spirit of old school Cuban MLB pioneers such as  Luis Tiant and Tony Perez, the new generation is making a similar impact. The trials and tribulations of their pre-MLB lives has instilled a fearlessness and confidence years beyond their ages.  

Before the Marlins drafted Fernandez in the first round, with the 14th overall selection of the 2011 MLB Draft, and gave him a $2 million signing bonus, he unsuccessfully attempted to defect to the U.S. three times, and each time he got bagged, he did a prison stint. He finally defected with his mother and sister in 2008, but during that saga his mom fell overboard when the boat hit rocky waters, and a 15-year-old José had to dive in and save his mother's life.

Escaping Castro’s clutches was hard, but Fernandez has been rougher on opposing batters. August is also the second month in which he has surpassed the 30 percent mark on strikeout his rate, having laced 30.5 percent of hitters last month.

Fernandez’s rise has been as swift as the last-place Marlin’s demise. His arrival in Miami figured to come midseason, at the earliest, but injuries gave ownership an excuse to call him up in April, and in the process create some early optimism. The 20-year-old made his first start less than two years out of high school and nearly five years after arriving from Cuba.

Playing in Miami’s cesspool of low-priced scrubs, young and outmatched firepower, managerial instability and fan disinterest hasn’t knocked Fernandez’s hustle a bit. He’s steadily improving with each outing and hit a career-low 7.3 percent walk rate, having allowed just 11 free passes for the month, two intentional.

He reminds Miami fans of the feelings of hope and success they experienced when another top prospect named Josh Beckett made his Major League debut this week in 2001, throwing six shutout innings against the Cubs and then Beckett went on to win a World Series MVP for his clutch pitching in 2003. That season, the (Florida) Marlins also won 91 games, something they haven’t done since.

Now there is a must-see baseball attraction in Miami. It’s not the Afro-Cuban Ramba act during the seventh-inning stretch, but a franchise hurler from just across the border. The first major step towards something really shaking in Miami. 

JR Gamble joined The Shadow League in 2012. The General Manager of Content & Social Media is in his 25th year of covering sports and culture professionally. He has covered a wide variety of major sports and entertainment topics across different mediums, including radio, newspapers, magazines and national TV. His passion is baseball, the culturing of baseball and preserving and documenting the historically-impactful accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans in baseball.