The day after José’s death in a boating accident we were scrambling for new and different ways to cover the news, Univision Digital News Editor-in-Chief Borja Echevarria suggested doing a short video on his life.
Two hands went up immediately. As a Marlins fan since moving to Miami in 1992, for reporter David Adams it was a no-brainer.
For videographer Laura Prieto, understanding the human drama behind the tragedy instantly appealed.
In 2015 we were both fortunate enough to meet José Fernández at his favorite barbershop, Headz Up, located right outside the Miami Marlins locker room.
He struck as a nice guy, surprisingly open to journalists and their pesky questions.
In reality, we were there to meet his barber, Hugo ‘Juice’ Tandron, for a feature on the only in-house Major League baseball barber. José was there as a favor to Juice, which we later found out to be typical of how José stood by his friends. José didn’t really need a haircut, but he got one anyway as he knew it would make a good photo for the story about his friend.
That day we learned a little detail that would help unlock JDF16. We discovered that Juice performed a game day ritual with José, trimming his hair and the edges of his beard. Most baseball players have their little superstitions. As we would learn later, José liked to look good on the mound. Right down to his underwear. He liked to cut a figure (as a teen he signed letters “Delfy La Figura.” He knew he was going to be star.
So, after José died, Juice was one of the first people we called.
We went to visit him at his other barber shop in Miami Gardens, also called Headz Up. Juice being Juice, he said, “anything you need, bro.”
Marlins second baseman, Dee Gordon, one of José's closest teammates, happened to be waiting for a trim. We signed him up for a sit down interview at a later date (which we filmed during Spring Training in February)
The other person we called was Ralph Fernandez, the Tampa lawyer who represents José's family.
Adams has known Ralph for more than 20 years, from his days reporting on Cuba for the St Petersburg Times in Tampa Bay. But he had no idea he was close to José. When he saw him delivering a beautiful eulogy at José’s funeral, he shot him a text offering his condolences.
We spoke a few days later and he began to the story of how he had become one of José’s closest friends and confidents.
Their relationship started in 2010 when Jose was ruled ineligible to play baseball in his senior year at Alonso High School in Tampa because he had started 10 th grade in Cuba. Ralph appealed and won that case. Alonso went on that year to win its second state championship, it’s second with José on the team.
Ralph represented José pro-bono in that case. In fact, in all the years he’s known José he has never charged the family a cent.
And he doesn’t plan to start doing so now that José is dead and the family’s estate is in legal jeopardy. That’s the way Ralph is. If you are Cuban, and you’ve been in jail in Cuba (as José had been briefly after one failed attempt to leave the island), Ralph was on your side.
As we learned over the next six months from many of the key people in José's life, he had such a contagious high energy personality that he won everyone over to him almost instantly. It wasn’t about money, or even his extraordinary talent on the baseball field. It was "José being José," as Gordon put it.
Baseball scouts call it “make-up,” meaning what type of character you are. It's a big part of baseball psychology, how to combine talent, hard work and being a team player.
José was a force of nature and he could be a handful. “He was ADD cubed,” Ralph told me, referring to the attention deficit disorder that afflicts many children. But, his was a very positive force, when channeled correctly. José listened to good advice, worked his tail off and had an affectionate way of giving back, Ralph said.
We came to a mutual understanding with Ralph. If we left the family alone to grieve in private for a few months, he would see what he could do to help us with the film.
In the meantime, he told us to go ahead and film all the other elements we needed. When I told him we were thinking of a short video of 8-10 minutes, he said think again. José's story was worth much more than that, he said.
Back at the newsroom our Univision WLTV sports colleague José Luis Napoles offered some valuable tips. José Luis is from Santa Clara, José Fernández's home town in Cuba, and began his career in journalism as a sports commentator there.
“You have to talk to Aledmys Díaz,” he said, to our slightly puzzled looks. He went on to explain that Aledmys grew up with José in the same street and had recently broken into the Major Leagues as a shortstop for the St Louis Cardinals.
A few days later we were driving up to Palm Beach to interview Aledmys. That’s when the doors really began to open.
Aledmys is the total opposite of José. A few years older, Aldemys is a serious young man, less effusive, very low key. His wife had just given birth to their first child.
He spoke warmly of José by his pool on the intracoastal, about how much he looked up to him and respected not just his athleticism but the joy with which José played the game. He envied that. It wasn’t a job for José, like it can be for many professional athletes. José was so good at it, understood it so well, that for him it was pure, unadulterated fun.
Aledmys said if we wanted to go to Cuba and meet José’s friends down there we should call his uncle, Nelson. “He’s a barber. He lived at the end of the street where we grew up. He introduced José to baseball,” he said.
In December we were Cuba bound. Fidel Castro’s funeral first, then a side trip to Santa Clara.
Over two days we recorded several hours of powerful and emotional interviews with José’s uncle Osmani and his cousin Yordy, perhaps the closest person to him besides his mother.
We also met José’s little league coach Oscar Castillo, now retired from baseball and raising canaries, and another coach Noel Guerra. They all spoke with tears in their eyes about their love for that “mischievous,” “restless,” “superhuman” child they all referred to as Delfin (his middle name).
They took us to the baseball field where Nelson introduced José to the sport, a little shy of five years old.
While filming there with some of the little leaguers, Laura received a nasty gash to the head from a bat swing. After a quick hospital visit (free of charge) we were back at the field a short while after, Laura with a bloody blouse and a bandage on her head, to interview Castillo.
A clear picture was emerging by now. Everyone wanted to talk about José, tell their own personal story about what an exhilarating young man he was.
Every interview came with tears and laughter as each person tried to reconcile their grief with expressing their fond memories. We realized Ralph was right, our video about José was worthy of a more ambitious treatment, and the idea of an hour-long documentary began to gell. It was going to be a challenge. Univision's digital unit, to which Laura and I belong, had never attempted anything of that length before.
When we got back to Miami however, we discovered that not everyone wanted to talk about José. Major League Baseball politely declined to share any video of his professional career “due to lasting sensitivities surrounding Jose's untimely and tragic passing.”
That was a problem for us as they own every second of every game he played. How were we going to show his talent on the field without video? We hadn't been able to find any video of him pitching in Cuba either. Video cameras were a rarity there as were smart phones.
The Marlins wouldn’t talk either.
It was still too soon to approach José’s mother, Maritza.
So we went to Tampa to meet Orlando Chinea, Jose’s pitching coach. Something of a legend, Chinea is also Cuban and developed his own coaching methods, incorporating techniques he learned during a period in Japan.
But Chinea wasn’t talking either. He told us he had closed the book on José. He was upset with the way the Marlins had handled their young star, believing, rightly or wrongly, that the team had not taken good care of him.
Nor would José's high school coach speak to us. He’d done enough media interviews by then and wanted to move on as well.
Though he didn't want to talk on camera, Chinea invited us to witness his coaching method at a Tampa park.
After a few hours however, he relented and proceeded to tell us how he molded Jose’ into a First Round draft pick and Major League Rookie of the Year. José had a natural gift, a high baseball IQ, he said. But he also had a tremendous work ethic, training after school five days a week, as well as weekends. There were no high school parties or beach vacations for José.
He suggested we speak to José's ex-wife, Alejandra Baleato. “Ask her about what Jose did in his free time,” he said, recalling what a positive, stabilizing influence in his life she had been.
We had learned on a previous visit to Tampa that José was briefly married, a fact that was not widely known outside the family.
When we found Alejandra the next day, she not only confirmed Chinea’s story, but added her own sweet anecdotes about their four years romance.
Alejandra poured her heart out in a moving interview. Afterwards, to our surprise she thanked us, saying she needed to get it off her chest to move on with her life. She'd never spoken to the press before, and she found it therapeutic. But she asked us to protect her from further media exposure. "I'm only doing this once, for José and for you," she said.
Alonso High school coach Landy Faedo also graciously allowed us to film a team practice on the field where José's name and number 16 are emblazoned on the outfield fence. His assistant Pete Toledo came through as well, finding old tapes of José pitching in the state championship.
Others at the Florida High School Athletics Association, Spectrum Sports and TV Video Clips a video archive retrieval service, helped us find more tape of José pitching, and even hitting a massive home run.
By Laura had brought in the rest of her video team to help us, editing maestro, Nacho Corbella and our super talented animators Mauricio Rodriguez-Pons and Ricardo Weibezahn. Over the next few weeks they would work magic, recreating missing scenes from José's childhood.
To overcome the video hurdle of José's playing career, Laura and Nacho came up with the idea of calling up photographers who shot José's most important games and asking for frame bursts from their motor drives to create a "stop motion video" effect. It would require many extra hours to edit hundreds of photos, and delay release of the film, but it worked.
By March it was time to approach José's mother, Maritza. Ralph gave us the thumbs up. Laura crafted a tender letter which we mailed to Maritza. She responded immediately. Still wary, she agreed in principle to an interview. But she was worried about the still incomplete investigation into José's boat crash. A toxicology report had already shown that José had excess alcohol in his system, as well as cocaine.
Maritza and Ralph were dumbfounded, as were so many of his friends. It was so out of character.
In March the investigation report was released. José was driving the boat with reckless disregard for safety.
It was a huge setback for the family, and appeared to jeopardize our hopes for an interview. The film would have to reflect José's apparent irresponsibility, and his role in the two other lives that were lost on the boat. But would his family accept that?
A few days later Maritza got back to us. Let's do it, she said, explaining she felt that speaking to the media was something "inevitable" that she had to get out of the way. If Ralph trusted us, that was good enough for her.
The interview at her house lasted two hours. She was remarkably steady and composed. "I'm not a strong woman," she said. We begged to differ.
Would we like to include Maria Arias, José's girlfriend, in the film, she asked?
We hadn't wanted to trouble Maria. She had just given birth to José's daughter a month earlier. We considered her pretty much off-limits. But we had heard so much about José's excitement on learning he was going to be a father - a presence he never had in his life - that it seemed the right way to end his story.
A few days later Maria sat down with Maritza and baby Penélope for the last shoot of the film.
Six months after we began this journey we invite you to sit back and view the film here. With our thanks to everyone who made it possible.