José Fernández may be gone, but he’s far from being forgotten. On what would have been his 25th birthday, family, friends, former teammates, and fans have paid tribute to the former Miami Marlins pitcher affectionately known as “Niño.”
Last summer, a tragic accident took the life of Fernández just days after he revealed that he and his girlfriend were expecting their first child together. The devastating news was made all the more heartbreaking when only a few days prior, Fernández made an emotional tribute to his girlfriend and their future together.
While Fernández’s life may have been cut tragically short, the baseball star’s girlfriend and their 5-month-old daughter continue to keep his legacy alive.
Fernández, who defected from Cuba at 15-years-old and went on to become a baseball star, was found dead with two other men after their capsized boat was discovered at the entrance of Miami Harbor, Florida on September 25th. Authorities said that the 32-foot vessel slammed into a jetty off Miami Beach.
Only a matter of days before the accident, José Fernández revealed to fans with an Instagram post that he and his girlfriend, Carla Mendoza, were expecting their first child together. The picture showed Fernández’s girlfriend on the beach holding her baby bump alongside an emotional caption.
“I’m so glad you came into my life,” José Fernández wrote on the Instagram caption alongside the picture of his expectant girlfriend. “I’m ready for where this journey is gonna take us together.” The Marlins’ pitcher followed the caption with a hashtag that stated: “family first.”
In honor of Fernández’s 25th birthday, an outpour of tributes have appeared on social media almost a year after the tragic accident. However, none was quite as emotional as his family and daughter visiting Marlins Park.
José Fernández’s mother, grandmother, girlfriend, and 5-month-old daughter returned to Marlins Park to celebrate the late pitcher’s life. The second baseman, Dee Gordon, carried Fernández’s daughter around the Marlins clubhouse and showed her his old locker and uniform.
In one heartbreaking photo, Fernández’s daughter Penelope can be seen wearing his baseball jersey and reaching her hand out to an enlarged photo of the father she’ll never have the chance to meet.
“She is beautiful,” Marlins infielder Miguel Rojas told Miami Herald. “She has the same face as José. Even the hair. Kind of the messy hair like his when he came out of the showers. That’s a little piece that we kind of need to remember him.”
The family’s visit to Marlins Park marked the first time Fernández’s mother, Maritza Gomez Fernandez, has returned to the Miami baseball stadium since her son’s death.
Maritza Gomez Fernández didn’t just visit Marlins Park to celebrate her son’s birthday, she also visited the crash site and spray painted a rock with his initials, threw petals into the ocean, and lit 25 candles in commemoration.
“My beautiful boy wherever you are today we are all going to remember and miss you so much,” Maritza Gomez Fernández wrote on Facebook. “Your mommy is waiting for you, my love. I love you so much my Delfy. Nothing harder than living without you, my love.”
Later in the day, Fernández’s mother presented a check for $25,000 from José’s charitable legacy, the JDF16 Foundation, to the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana to help local youth.
“I feel that Jose would be proud of what I am doing in his memory,” Maritza said at the gathering. “He always wanted to help the kids. I see these kids and they remind me of Jose when he was five years old.”
The looming anniversary of José Fernández’s death will surely bring more eulogies for the celebrated baseball star, but his girlfriend Maria Arias has stated that she will continue to celebrate his life for their daughter no matter the date.
Maria Arias has spoken publicly only a few times since Fernández’s death, but reassures people that their daughter is like a “little piece of him” left behind and she will make sure she’s aware of the person he was.
“I will forever talk about him,” Arias told PEOPLE. “I will never let his memory die. I will always keep him alive, no matter how much that hurts me. Because she deserves that from me; and from all of us. And so does he.”
“He was a beautiful person, we who truly knew him talk about him that way and value him that way, and we’ll continue to do that,” Arias said.