Inside Story: A death which divides and unites Miami

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Jose Fernandez was on course to become one of the best pitchers in MLB history.

It’s been eight long months since the death of Jose Fernandez yet the heart still aches. Memories of the huge smile and machine-like arm which transported the Cuban pitching sensation into the big time have been interwoven with revelations of needless recklessness and substance abuse.

While the baseball world mourned Fernandez, 24, last September after his body was found in a smashed-up boat in South Florida, it must be noted two other young men perished alongside him.

The relatives of Eduardo Rivero and Emilio Macias , who’d been partying with the pitcher, are hurting too. Both parties have launched legal battles after it was revealed the Miami Marlins star was found to be driving the boat under the influence of alcohol and cocaine.

If Fernandez had survived, he could have been facing years behind bars. Yet while everyone attempts to digest the devestating findings of the inquest which broke in March, Univision – the top Spanish language broadcaster in the United States – have produced an enlightening, excellent documentary. JDF16 reveals a side of Fernandez’s galaxy away from the person who acted so dangerously that fateful night.

With no help from the MLB (their fierce licensing rights forbade any official footage being used) and a thoroughly disappointing snub from the Marlins front office who were scared stiff of the film portraying the player and franchise in a less than favourable light, journalists David Adams and Laura Prieto Uribe attempted to show the real Fernandez.

Not a crazed fool who thought it was a good idea to drive a boat at breakneck speed at 03:00, but a young man with a baseball dream who placed family before anything.

A supremely talented, happy-go-lucky lad who saved his mother from drowning in a boat charged with taking them from Cuba to the safe haven of the United States. “Jose’s mother didn’t want to talk at first because of the drugs, the partying,” Adams told Sport360°.

“She thought we were going to portray her son as the guy from that night. That wasn’t our objective. We wanted to show how someone from Cuba starting out from where he was became such a big star.”

Behind the scenes: Laura Prieto Uribe, David Adams and cousin Yordan Gomez (c).

Behind the scenes: Laura Prieto Uribe, David Adams and cousin Yordan Gomez (c).

Watching the documentary unfold, you are instantly warmed by Fernandez. He was a charming, lovable mother’s boy who just happened to possess the ability to launch a baseball at 100mph/160kph.

“At 06:00 he was on the streets playing with a stick and stones. Any stick he found was a bat. He broke the glass on the neighbors’ doors”, recalled mother Maritza Gomez Fernandez.

Others remembered games involving balls made out of mud and running through the streets after accidentally hitting homeruns towards an elderly woman. There was mischief. Yet it wasn’t malicious.

“I knew nothing about baseball, so for me it was more that this guy has such an interesting life and it was such a dramatic death, it was a story worth telling,” said Prieto Uribe. “It became more interesting with each step. It captivated us as people and filmmakers. He was the only name I knew from the Marlins. I knew he was big but… “It’s impossible not to feel empathy towards him.”

It’s also impossible not to mull over his death and lament what should have been. At the film’s end, once the shock of his family is laid bare, some astonishing statistics flash up:

1. In the last 100 years, only 97 players aged 20 or under have pitched more than 100 innings in a season – Fernandez ranked second among all of them.

2. He holds the fourth-highest number of strikeouts in a season for pitchers under 24 with 253 outs in 2016.

3. He struck out 31 per cent of the batters he faced – the best record in Major League history – winning 69 per cent of the games he pitched making him arguably the best Cuban player ever.

Remarkable numbers which make his needless passing all the more painful. “He was especially blessed,” said former Marlins coach Chuck Hernandez. With girlfriend Maria Arias pregnant with daughter Penelope at the time of the crash, Fernandez was gearing up to sign a multi-million dollar deal which would have set his family up for life.

His rookie contract was worth around $2 million and due to expire next year. The new one was said to be in the region of $270 million. Talks had begun yet will never be completed. Once the money runs out, that’s it.

The Marlins, because Fernandez no longer plays for them, don’t have the rights to his name so you won’t find any merchandise bearing his name in the Marlins Stadium shop.

This season the players have had a No16 stitched into their uniforms while talks of a statue being built in his honour has sparked fierce debate.

Some, quite understandably, argue that a man whose actions killed two others shouldn’t be lauded. Others counter with the need to show that with fame comes responsibility. To the large Cuban community in Miami, Fernandez was a hero. A beacon of hope. A legend.

“They are desperate to preserve Jose’s legacy,” said Adams, a Brit who moved to South Florida in the 1990’s and has become enthralled with America’s favourite pastime. “Some fans would love a statue, some say we shouldn’t lionise someone who died with cocaine and alcohol in their system and contributed to the death of two others. But maybe it’s a lesson and reminder to people about the pitfalls of fame. Tell people to be responsible. There are a lot of accidents on the water, normally involving alcohol. “Why should Jose be judged by the way he died?” he added.

“He was 24, all of us have done reckless things. Society is too quick to judge sometimes. There are always haters who will go on radio shows and say strong things but we shouldn’t be like that. “Maybe we should be more forgiving and understanding and recognise that people aren’t either good or bad. “That was Jose’s story.”

Delving into Fernandez’s path to the Marlins was quite something. The trials and tribulations involved just to get to that point would have been too much for a lesser man.

Three botched attempts to leave Cuba on an illegally-commandeered boat simply strengthened his resolve.

Four state championships at high school paved the way to the Major Leagues at the age of 18 – just three years after arriving in the US – and being named ‘Rookie of the Year’ even if the Cuban authorities attempted to have their say at the stat by banning him from baseball for a year.

“When he tried to leave Cuba for the second time, the Minister of Sports punished him,” said cousin Yordan Gomez. “One of the times he came to visit family, we went to eat at a restaurant and the minister was there.

“And he told him, ‘good evening. Do you know who I am? I am Jose Fernandez, the person you banned for a year for trying to leave the country illegally on the verge of playing in the baseball world championships for 13 and 14-year-olds.

“Star pitcher for the Marlins. Rookie of the year and I want to tell you that your punishment didn’t affect my career in the least. “Today, I am bigger than ever. And today what you eat and drink is paid for by Jose Fernandez.”

That tale seemed characteristic of the boy. Fiercely determined yet going about his business with a smile. His sad demise, however, continues to raise more questions than answers.

“The investigation didn’t come out too favourably for Jose but it didn’t actually answer the questions about how the drugs entered his system, whose was it, who bought it?” said Adams.

“These are all unanswered questions. The tick-tock of that night, we still really don’t know. The others were new friends. One he’d just met that evening. “It shocked us and although it made us think for a few seconds we knew that the inquest didn’t change the story for us.

“How this little boy turned into a major leaguer. “The investigators were unable to retrieve any information from Jose’s phone. A more sophisticated investigation may be able to dig something up.

“Also now there are civil lawsuits – moved from state to federal – and the family are fighting very hard to reduce his liability and show he wasn’t as responsible perhaps as the investigation has shown. “They are digging into what happened very aggressively so it will be interesting to see what’s found.”

Fernandez’s legend lives on though no-one involved will be able to rest with legal battles set to rage for another two years. That’s a lot of time for anger to simmer and memories to become tarnished. Those closest will never forget.

It’s other perceptions -rightly or wrongly – which could become altered. “The fans, team and family need closure,” concludes Prieto Uribe.

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Underdog tale reveals mess in Indian soccer

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In many ways, Mizoram is India’s forgotten state – though brimming with potential, tragically lacking in means or direction. When you’re the seventh largest country in the world and divided into 29 states and seven Union Territories, it’s easy to exclude the north-east minnows from the conversation.

Detached from the rest of the country, clinging on only by a sliver of land that carefully treads around and beyond Bangladesh, the region is alienated from the mainland in thought and locale.

It is then more than a bolt from the blue when a small football team from the obscure state’s capital ups and wins the national league. In the north east, football isn’t just a sport, it’s the only sport, a way of life and few things matter as much. The locals boast a passion for the beautiful game that rivals that of anywhere in the world.

Imagine then the fanfare and elation last month when Aizawl FC, operating on a shoestring budget, fuelled by local talent, industry and the infectious enthusiasm of its fan base, defied the odds and became champions of India. A remarkable 2017 season saw the Mizo outfit win the I-League and it wasn’t long before they were branded India’s own Leicester City.

Everyone loves an underdog and it’s hard not to be moved by Aizawl’s extraordinary feat. You’d think a fairytale such as theirs can only be good for Indian football, but their unprecedented success has given the All India Football Federation (AIFF) a headache, one they have alleviated… for now.

The country’s football governing body last year announced plans for a new three-tier structure where the three-month (for now) long Indian Super League (ISL) would operate for seven months from November to March as the top division with the I-League serving as the second and I-League Two running as the third.

If that plan went ahead for the upcoming season, Indian football would’ve been confronted with the bizarre scenario of its national champions, who will compete in the AFC Champions League (ACL) qualifiers this year, playing in the country’s second division. It’s that blueprint with which Aizawl took issue, so much so that they even intended to protest publically to the extent of staging a hunger strike, threatening to ‘fast unto death’.

However, it’s understood that as of the past week, those plans have been put off. Instead, the two leagues are expected to run parallel next season, with the I-League champions retaining their ACL qualifier spot while the AFC are prepared to allot the 2017-18 ISL champions an AFC Cup place.

That however would mean that the AFC Cup spot usually awarded to the winners of the Federation Cup, India’s premier domestic cup, would cease to exist.

Ultimately, while all of this is the current understanding, it’s not been made official yet as told to Sport360 by I-League CEO Sunando Dhar.

“That’s one of the discussions (parallel leagues). Nothing is decided, we are waiting to hear back from the AFC.”

That scenario though appears to agree with Aizawl in the immediate future as the club’s owner Robert Royte states.

“The national league champions will qualify for the ACL playoffs. The I-League is still the big one.”

He preferred, however, not to reveal his plans should the ISL eventually reign supreme.

“At this stage, I prefer not to disclose my idea because it has become a sensitive issue. But we have been given to understand that for the next season, I-League will still be the top league.”

Meanwhile, on Thursday, IMG-Reliance’s subsidiary, Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), which runs the ISL, invited bids for ‘one to three’ new teams.

“Bids are invited from prospective team owners in respect of 10-cities ie, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Cuttack, Durgapur, Hyderabad, Jamshedpur, Kolkata, Ranchi, Siliguri and Thiruvananthapuram,” a press release stated.

The decision presumably opens the door for the inclusion of the I-League’s big three; Bengaluru FC, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. Meanwhile, Aizawl are nowhere in the picture as theirs is not one of the 10 cities invited – excluded from the conversation once more. It’s a scenario that Royte has accepted with resignation.

“As per the present format of ISL, Aizawl, being a small city, is not one of the selected cities for an franchise. We are outside the system. The ISL does not concern us.”

But before we mourn the absence of Mizoram’s distinct flavour in what could become the top tier, remember the region does have an ISL franchise representing them and one that has gained fanatical support over a short period.

NorthEast United FC not only represent Mizoram but also seven other states from the north east, as the eight stars that headlines their crest suggests. Such is the club’s following that they boasted the second-highest attendance in the ISL last year, pulling in an average of 26,729. By contrast, Aizawl’s average attendance in their title-winning campaign was 6,943.

It’s an unfair comparison to make between the leagues but as long as they compete to be regarded as the nation’s No1 division, that’s what will happen. The country needs a singular top flight to get behind and that’s why a merger or restructuring appears imminent.

“We all wanted to have one long league and in future we are moving towards that where teams from ISL and I-League play together,” Dhar adds. “We tried to begin that from this year. Then it would be a fight between the top clubs in the same league.”

The general consensus is eventually the ISL, with the inclusion of a few teams from the I-League, will be officially recognised as the top division. However, Dhar prefers to perceive that as the two leagues working in cohesion to help construct a new football ecosystem.

“It’s not about that (ISL or I-League being top). The idea is to have two or three divisions and the top division should have the top teams. That’s what Mr. Praful Patel (AIFF President) has said. In about 4-5 years, it will be the right time.”

With the upcoming season to feature the two leagues running parallel, I-League clubs risk losing their best players to the more financially rewarding ISL, but Dhar ironically points to Aizawl’s efforts as an alternative, whose players are likely to be cherry picked.

“Aizawl FC with a next-to-nothing budget overcame teams like Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru. Ideally, that’s the model every club needs to look at. Build their own teams through the youth system.”

It’s all well and good regarding Aizawl’s achievement as a harbinger of hope, but Indian football needs much more, it requires a clear direction, structure and financial stimulus. With the country hosting the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in October and the national team’s recent rise to 100 in the FIFA rankings, now is the time to act, to make the most of this momentum.

That might mean the likes of Aizawl and other I-League clubs simply incapable of complying with the criteria and financial demands of the ISL are destined to remain in what may become the second tier for the foreseeable future.

Admittedly, it is a bitter pill to swallow but hopefully one that can help remedy Indian football’s septic stagnation.

DRAMA AND KARMA: AIZAWL’S STORY IS A SPORTING MIRACLE

BOLLYWOOD BITES

Such is the intrigue generated by the newly crowned I-League champions that according to Aizawl FC owner Robert Royte, there are ongoing talks about the possibility of a Bollywood film. The movie would centre around head coach Khalid Jamil to be played by veteran actor Ajay Devgan (above).

SHOESTRING BUDGETS

One of the most remarkable aspects of Aizawl’s triumph is they conquered the league and punched well above their weight on a miserly budget. To put it into perspective, Mohun Bagan’s Haitian forward Sony Norde rakes in wages upwards of Rs. 1.2 Cr. Aizawl’s total budget is Rs. 1.5 Cr.

KHALID KARMA

The title win was also the ultimate redemption for head coach Jamil. The Kuwaiti-born former Indian international was sacked from Mumbai FC after eight seasons. As fate would have it, Mumbai were relegated as Jamil lifted the trophy he coveted for so long with his new employers

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Throughout the entire season, Aizawl scored just one goal in the opening half hour of games. In fact, 75 per cent of their goals came in the second half. They became notorious for grinding out wins and their never-say-die attitude as 33 per cent of their strikes came in the final 15 minutes.

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