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Fernandez's path a story of 'perseverance'

Angels first baseman living dream in Majors after eight seasons in Cuba, unsuccessful defection
MLB.com @mi_guardado

Jose Miguel Fernandez encountered more adversity than most on his road to the Majors, so when he finally received that long-awaited callup from the Angels on June 8, it was only natural that he found himself overcome with emotion.

"I started to cry," Fernandez said in Spanish. "It's a dream come true to be here in the big leagues."

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Jose Miguel Fernandez encountered more adversity than most on his road to the Majors, so when he finally received that long-awaited callup from the Angels on June 8, it was only natural that he found himself overcome with emotion.

"I started to cry," Fernandez said in Spanish. "It's a dream come true to be here in the big leagues."

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Fernandez was once one of the top players in Cuba, but his career stalled following a failed defection in 2014. He had to wait until age 30 to finally make his MLB debut with the Angels, collecting a single in his first at-bat against the Twins. The left-handed-hitting Fernandez is now 5-for-16 (.313) with two doubles in five games this season, receiving regular playing time at first base following a slew of injuries to Halos infielders.

"It's not just being 30 years old," manager Mike Scioscia said. "It's the path to the big leagues. It's a story of perseverance. It's a story of opportunity."

Fernandez debuted with Matanzas in Cuba's Serie Nacional at age 19, and he developed into an offensive-minded second baseman, batting .319 with an .826 OPS over eight seasons in the island's top league. An impressive showing at the 2013 World Baseball Classic helped elevate his international profile and fuel his ambitions of leaving Cuba. On a roster with future big leaguers Yuli Gurriel, Jose Abreu, Yasmany Tomas and Guillermo Heredia, Fernandez batted a team-high .524 with a 1.212 OPS and no strikeouts in 21 at-bats, catching the eye of many MLB scouts.

"We played against a lot of quality teams, and we faced a lot of big leaguers," Fernandez said. "I think that gave us room to dream big. I had a successful career in Cuba. I think as I began to travel abroad to play in other countries, I started to realize that I could play the best baseball in the world. That's where my aspirations began."

In his last full season with Matanzas in 2013-14, Fernandez hit .326 with a .938 OPS, 65 walks and 10 strikeouts in 314 plate appearances, ranking second in the Serie Nacional with a .482 on-base percentage. He was the No. 3 player on Baseball America's April 2014 list of the Top 20 players still in Cuba.

"He's a great ballplayer, no doubt," said Heredia, who played with Fernandez for six years in Cuba and caught up with his former Matanzas teammate during the Angels-Mariners series earlier this week. "I've always admired him for his way of being, for the way he plays. I have great memories of him in Cuba."

Video: LAA@MIN: Fernanez rips a double to right, plates one

In October 2014, reports surfaced that Fernandez had defected from Cuba to pursue an MLB contract, but they proved to be inaccurate. Fernandez's attempt to escape had failed, and he was subsequently banned from the Serie Nacional for one year. After serving his suspension, Fernandez was permitted to leave the island legally in December 2015, and he relocated to the Dominican Republic.

Fernandez was declared a free agent by Major League Baseball in April 2016, but inopportune timing and his long layoff from competitive games kept him from landing a contract right away. Seeking a platform on which to showcase his skills to MLB scouts, Fernandez played with the Aguilas Cibaenas of the Dominican Winter League later that year. He signed with the Dodgers in January 2017, and he received a signing bonus of $200,000.

Fernandez batted .306 with an .863 OPS and 16 home runs in 93 games between Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A Oklahoma City in 2017, but his season was cut short by injury and he was released in November. After joining the Angels on a Minor League deal, Fernandez opened the '18 season at Triple-A Salt Lake, where he was batting .345 with a .973 OPS and 10 home runs at the time of his promotion.

"I called my family in Cuba and told my father," Fernandez said. "I wanted to share that joy with him. You just work every day thinking about getting here to the big leagues. It's the main goal for any ballplayer. And getting the news, you feel so much emotion that it almost takes you by surprise."

Shortly thereafter, Fernandez also phoned Heredia, who was equally thrilled for his longtime friend. The two reunited at Safeco Field on Wednesday, snapping photos and relishing the opportunity to share the same field for the first time in the Majors.

"When he called to tell me that they had brought him up, I felt just like I did when I got the same call," Heredia said. "I'm really proud of the work that he's been doing, and that they've called up him to the big leagues. I went through the same process that he did. I was also suspended. I was also away from baseball in Cuba, but we were given the opportunity to leave, and thanks to God, we're here."

Maria Guardado covers the Angels for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Los Angeles Angels, Jose Miguel Fernandez