Last week’s boating accident, which tragically took the life of Miami Marlins player Jose Fernández, resulted in a much greater loss than simply that of an ace pitcher, according to those who knew him best.
Fernández was an extremely generous and involved philanthropist, especially in the case of the organization Live Like Bella, where he served as a board member. LLB Chairman Raymond Rodriguez-Torres, who lost his his daughter Bella to cancer in 2013, says, “People loved him not just because of what he did on the field, but because his greatest attributes were off the mound.”
Rodriguez-Torres remembers meeting Fernández after Bella died. “LeBron James and Dwayne Wade had famously written #LiveLikeBella on their shoes the night she passed away,” he said. “Shortly after that time, the Marlins invited us to go to the stadium to thank Miami for their support. As we were on the field, this young man approached, and he said, ‘My name is Jose, I’m so sorry about Bella, I’ve been following her story for a while. I’d like to help you help children with cancer. Can I give you my cell phone number?’ It was as simple as that.”
Rodriguez-Torres admits he didn’t really know much about Fernández at the time, and while he was dealing with his grief, he simply chalked up their conversation as a nice moment. Fernández was already quite famous—in particular for rescuing his mother from drowning and for his four attempts to come to America from Cuba.
While Rodriguez-Torres focused on moving forward with Live Like Bella, Fernández apparently never forgot their encounter. “A few months later,” remembers Rodriquez-Torres, “we were fundraising for our first research project at Oregon Health Sciences University—and we were $20,000 away from reaching our goal. Jose calls out of the blue and says, ‘Hey guys, it’s Jose from the Marlins. I was just awarded Rookie of the Year. Can I give $20,000 to you? Can you use that?”
“It was a remarkable moment to see a young man who didn’t have children, and had no reason to become so endeared to this, be so generous. He didn’t take the money for himself. It was incredible,” says Rodriguez-Torres.
From that time on, the Fernández and Rodriguez-Torres families became very close. “We would speak often, go boating together, our daughter Rayna had a very special relationship with him. He used to call her princess,” says Rodriguez-Torres Fernández’s dedication to the cause never wavered, leading the athlete to eventually join the board.
“There was never a time that we’d ask Jose, ‘Listen can you please visit this child that is sick? Can this child go on the field and throw a ball to you?’—that he would say no,” Rodriguez-Torres says. “He was not one of these celebrity athletes that shows up for the photograph and leaves. If I had asked Jose to move trash outside, he would have done it,” he adds.
Live Like Bella Events director Jessica DeQuesada agrees. “He was such an amazing individual,” she says, “so, so willing to help any child. He was such a genuine soul.”
The families were actually all together less than three weeks ago, at the annual Live Like Bella ball, where Jose broke the news to the group that he was going to be a father. “He was so excited that he was going to become a father and that it was going to be a little girl,” says Raymond. “One of the girls that works at LLB was nine months pregnant at the ball. Jose put his hands on her belly and was able to feel the baby kick in the middle of the dance floor and his eyes and his face just lit up, and he said, ‘Wow – this is incredible.'”
Since Jose’s tragic death, Rodriguez-Torres has spent time comforting the pitcher’s mother Maritza, helping her through the grief of losing a child. “I told Maritza that it’s not even one day at a time, it’s one moment at a time, right now,” he says, adding, “I told Maritza I will let the world know who Jose was. If I had to characterize his life, I would simply say he was selfless in so many ways.”
Rodriguez-Torres says he also told her, “Jose is in heaven, in a place that we can’t even imagine how wonderful it is, and he is playing catch with Bella. What a lovely game of catch he and Bella must be playing.”
Of meeting the mother of Jose’s unborn child, Maria Arias, Rodriguez-Torres says, “In classic Jose fashion, there is this gift that is coming — which is his daughter.
It seems that gifts—both on and off the baseball diamond—were just a part of Fernández’s life. “That’s why so many people have been so touched by this,” says Rodriguez-Torres. “Somebody that throws a baseball 100mph and is a good athlete is magnificent, but you don’t see this kind of person very often. And at 24, it was just very rare.”