A humble and heartbroken Sen. Marco Rubio paid tribute on Tuesday to Jose Fernandez, the Miami Marlins pitcher who was found dead on Sunday.
“Jose’s story was our story because he reminds so many in my community of someone they know,” the Florida Republican said.
Rubio recalled Floridians watching the 24-year-old pitch during his career: “We said to ourselves, ‘This is what the American dream looks like.’ And boy, is the American dream alive and well.”
“Now Jose could stay in Cuba, a place that to this day is still ruled by a despotic regime,” Rubio said. “Or he could risk it all for the chance at freedom. And he risked it, not once but on four separate occasions”
The senator said that after Fernandez’s third failed attempt to come to the U.S., the Cuban government put him in prison at the age of 14.
During his fourth attempt, at 15, he was on a boat heading to Miami, when he heard a splash. Fernandez saw someone in the water and jumped in to save the person, and then realized it was his mother.
With his mother holding on to him, Fernandez swam the two to safety back to the boat, paddling “with his pitching arm,” Rubio said.
“As he would later tell us, the hardest part of his life was still yet to come,” he said.
The senator recalled that he woke Sunday to news of a boat crash before the victims were identified. He later received a text on his way to church that Fernandez had died in a boating accident.
“Immediately, I was able to connect the events,” Rubio said. “His death, at just 24 years of age has obviously devastated his family but it’s also had an extraordinary impact on our community.”
Rubio said that in the last 48 hours, Fernandez is all everyone can talk about in Miami.
“I never met Jose Fernandez and I feel like I knew him. And that’s how millions of people feel,” he said. “As Cuban-American, as Americans.”
Last year, Fernandez became a U.S. citizen, something he called his “most important accomplishment. … I consider myself now to be free.”
His Major League Baseball career and his impact on immigrant communities will be his legacy, Rubio said, adding that he believed Fernandez would some day be in the Hall of Fame.
“Jose Fernandez was the pride of Miami,” Rubio said. “My friends, that’s not bad for a 24 year old kid from Santa Clara, Cuba.”