Detroit – Tears welled in his eyes and words came out choked, clogged by the grief that had overtaken his heart.
Jose Iglesias was not able to play a baseball game Sunday. His close friend, his Cuban countryman, his offseason neighbor in Miami, a young man whose backstory was exactly like his own, suddenly was dead.
Miami Marlins dynamic pitcher Jose Fernandez, 24, was killed, along with two others, in a boating accident around 3:30 a.m. in waters outside of Miami.
“I knew him well,” Iglesias said. “We hung out in Miami together. We’ve been through a lot together. It was just very unfortunate. He was only 24. His family feels like … I can’t explain how his family feels.”
Iglesias got the news shortly after the family was notified.
“We’ve got some close friends and family and I got a couple of calls,” he said. “At the beginning I thought they were joking, you know? Unreal.”
As Iglesias did, Fernandez came over from Cuba in his early teens, armed with a dream and a powerful right arm.
“He’s a guy who left everything behind to make a dream come true and it ended so quickly,” Iglesias said. “Very sad. He was a guy with a bright future. His mom, his family, everybody feels really bad.
“There is nothing we can do at this time but learn and be grateful to know him. Such a great guy. Such a competitor. And my friend, mostly.”
Iglesias was summoned to pinch-hit in the ninth inning and roped a double.
The Marlins canceled their game against the Braves Sunday. The Tigers didn’t have that option. Iglesias, initially in the starting lineup, was pulled in deference to his grief.
Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Anibal Sanchez and Victor Martinez, all Miami residents, were also close to him and his family.
Casey McGehee and Fernandez were teammates in Miami in 2014 and half of 2015. The news hit him every bit as hard as it hit Iglesias. Fernandez formed a special bond with McGehee’s son Mack, who has cerebral palsy.
“The toughest part for me is having to tell my son what happened,” McGehee said. “A lot of people, they don’t really know how to treat Mack. For some reason, Jose had a heart for him. You get to the field, and it wasn’t like ‘Hey, Jose, do you want to keep an eye on him?’ Jose would come and grab him, and they were together from the time they got on the field to the time my wife came to pick him up.
“I think that really says a lot about what was truly in his heart, and what kind of guy he was.”
Everything people are saying about Fernandez Sunday – his competitiveness, his positive energy, his generosity – McGehee said, it’s all true.
“We were just talking about it the other day,” he said. “He was a competitor. It didn’t matter if it was playing cards on the plane, a sim game, or pitching in the big leagues. Even when he got hurt: We’ve all got our theory that he got hurt because we were playing the Dodgers, and he had a couple of guys that — he wasn’t letting them make contact. He was reaching back for a little extra.”
McGehee stopped to collect himself.
“Way too young,” he said. “There’s no other way to describe it. My thoughts and prayers are definitely with his family, and the guys that knew him best, and the rest of the teammates that are missing him today.
“I’m trying my best to remember all the times, the smile he had, and the competitiveness he showed on the mound.”
For Tigers’ manager Brad Ausmus, it brought back bad memories. He dealt with a similar tragedy when former Cardinals pitcher Darry Kile died suddenly in 2002.
“It’s an awful story,” Ausmus said of Fernandez. “You compete against these guys when you are wearing a different uniform, but it’s a little bit of a fraternity, a family. When you make it to the Major League, it puts you into a family of its own.
“But it’s hard to swallow, even if you don’t know the guy. Especially at that age. I’ve been through it; I know what they are going through.”