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Respect between David Ortiz, Jose Fernandez culminates in MLB All-Star at-bat

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The pair of stars faced off for the first time Tuesday night, and expressed immense respect for each other after the game.

SAN DIEGO — When retiring Red Sox slugger David Ortiz made his major league debut in 1997 with the Twins, Marlins ace Jose Fernandez was just 5 years old.

In normal circumstances, that age difference alone may have made a friendship between the two unlikely. But the immense mutual respect Ortiz and Fernandez have for each other made their first showdown, an at-bat in the third inning of Tuesday’s All-Star Game, a special one.

Fernandez has admired Ortiz since seeing him hit a home run against Cuba in the first World Baseball Classic, which was the first time Fernandez was able to watch major leaguers on television in his hometown of Santa Clara, Cuba.

"I was at school, in seventh grade," Fernandez said. "I’ll never forget, it was an afternoon game. I was in school, but for athletes only, for every sport."

"The first time I saw him, I loved what he did. I started following him, as little as I could. Then I got [to the United States], [Ortiz] was the first baseball jersey that I bought."

Fernandez first met Ortiz when the Marlins were in Boston last season, and the two spoke at length this week in San Diego. Ortiz has followed Fernandez throughout his career, and said that he had taken time to learn about Fernandez’ background.

"When I first met him, what he told me impacted me," Ortiz said. "I watched this kid pitch, and I saw the whole history behind where he comes from and his family. I was watching that at my house and I was crying like a little baby, man. It’s very touching. It touches you."

"It’s something that a lot of us, coming from different places, we leave that history behind and our families behind," Ortiz said. "Then later on, we catch up with it. We have the opportunity to bring our families into this beautiful country, the United States of America, which is my second home. Sometimes people don’t realize the struggles that we go through to get to where we are. That’s why, when I heard things like that, it made me super happy."

Fernandez told reporters Monday that he was planning to "groove" a couple pitches to Ortiz, in a similar fashion to how Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright gave Derek Jeter a pitch to hit in Jeter’s final All-Star Game two years ago. Fernandez had the same conversation with Ortiz, leading to the slugger’s surprise at a first-pitch changeup.

"You know what, I was supposed to hit a home run in my second at-bat," Ortiz said, laughing. "My boy told me he was gonna throw me nothing but fastballs, and the first pitch was a changeup. We’ve got to discuss that later. That’s why I was like, ‘Hey, I thought you were gonna throw nothing but fastballs. What happened?’"

"I told him I was going to do that," Fernandez said. "The first pitch I did throw it in there. If he would’ve hit it, it would’ve been funny. But after that, I was trying to make good pitches and trying to get him out. It was just different. Pitching in the All-Star Game to me is a different experience."

"I think after I had him two strikes," Fernandez said, "after the second and third pitch, I was really going to try to get him out. Trying to get some quick outs and go home."

Ortiz saw three different pitches (fastball, curveball and changeup) during his seven-pitch battle with Fernandez before walking him and being pulled out of the game by American League manager Ned Yost. The two were joking throughout the at-bat, which ended with a playful exchange as Ortiz trotted down to first base.

"He told me yesterday, ‘hey, you know what, be ready. I’m gonna come with my best fastball. I want to see if you can really hit fastballs,’" Ortiz said. "We never have faced each other, right? He threw me a changeup, first pitch. I’m looking at him, and he’s looking at me basically telling me that it’s the catcher’s fault. He called it. And then 3-2, he threw me a slider and I was like, ‘Hey, what’s going on?! You want me to break my back or something?’ He’s like, ‘the catcher again.’"

Ortiz then expressed his desire to play alongside Fernandez, lobbying the Red Sox to acquire the phenom in the club’s search for starting pitching help this summer.

"But man, always wishing him the best," Ortiz said. "The best. He has incredible stuff. I thought he was going to end up playing with me this year. I mean, you never know! I want him in my starting rotation. We need a little bit of help, and hopefully that happens at some point."

Ortiz also suggested that the Red Sox replace his bat with Blue Jays slugger Edwin Encarnacion, who is a free agent at the end of the season. Encarnacion reacted to the comment with a bit of shock in the clubhouse after the game.

"Surprised me," Encarnacion said when asked about his reaction to Ortiz’s comment. "I feel great because people like David Ortiz are thinking about me like that. What can I say? It's something unbelievable. I really respect that."

Fernandez also was humbled by the praise from Ortiz, as well as recent praise from Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, who recently tweeted, "Jose Fernandez is a special pitcher and human being and in every form you look at him you see BOSTON RED SOX."

"It’s an honor," Fernandez said. "It’s an honor for Pedro and people to say that."

"I think a lot of people notice and see when I pitch that I like to compete," Fernandez said. "I give my heart out there and I give everything that I have every time that I’m out. I love and respect this game, and I think wherever I’m going to be pitching, wherever I’m pitching for the rest of my career, I’ll be trying the hardest I can. I’ll be trying to do the best I can for my team to win."

With the Marlins very much in contention for a playoff spot this season, it’s unlikely they will trade Fernandez anywhere before the end of Ortiz’s career in October.

Regardless, the two were able to share a few special moments in San Diego this week, culminating in Ortiz signing a jersey for Fernandez before the two faced off Tuesday night.

"It’s amazing," Fernandez said of facing Ortiz. "I was nervous. I mean I was, I couldn’t believe that I was actually pitching to him. The fact that he was looking at me, smiling, we both knew what was going on. I had been talking to him a little about it. It was just great. And he signed a jersey that I brought for him. Just beautiful."

"He came up to me the other day and told me, ‘Hey, I have one jersey that I want to have at my house. It’s yours,’" Ortiz said. "It’s something that made me really happy. Like I always say, whenever I can go out of my way to help someone in the game and let them know what is best for them, I will always take my time to do it."