Jose Fernandez escaped from Cuba by boat on his fourth try as a teenager, and when his mother fell into the Yucatan Channel during the journey, he jumped in and pulled her out.
Fernandez's heroic backstory made his death on Monday (NZT) that much more heart-wrenching. The charismatic Miami Marlins ace was killed in a boating accident at age 24.
Fernandez and two other people died when their 32-foot vessel slammed into a jetty off Miami Beach, authorities said.
Authorities didn't know the time of the crash. The capsized boat was found shortly after 3 a.m.
A native of Santa Clara, Cuba, Fernandez was unsuccessful in his first three attempts to defect, and spent several months in prison. At 15, he and his mother finally made it to Mexico, and were reunited in Tampa, Florida, with his father, who had escaped from Cuba two years earlier.
The Marlins drafted him in 2011 and Fernandez was in the majors two years later at 20. He went 38-17 in his four seasons with Miami, winning the NL's Rookie of the Year award in 2013, and was twice an All-Star.
Last week, Fernandez posted a photo of his girlfriend sporting a 'baby bump' on his Instagram page, announcing that the couple was expecting its first child.
"I'm so glad you came into my life," Fernandez wrote in that post. "I'm ready for where this journey is gonna take us together."
Fernandez became a U.S. citizen last year and was enormously popular in Miami thanks to his success and exuberant flair. When he wasn't pitching, he would hang over the dugout railing as the team's lead cheerleader.
"When I think about Josie, it's going to be thinking about a little kid," said Mattingly, pausing repeatedly to compose himself. "I see such a little boy in him ... the way he played. ... Kids play Little League, that's the joy Jose played with."
Mattingly then wiped away tears, and he wasn't alone. Retiring Red Sox star David Ortiz asked the Tampa Bay Rays to cancel a pregame tribute they scheduled in his honor before his final game in their ballpark Sunday.