What Miami has been dreading all week finally happened Thursday: the unbearable goodbye to Marlins All-Star pitcher José Fernández.
In a televised service Thursday at St. Brendan Catholic Church, just a day after thousands of mourners passed by Fernández’s casket in a public ceremony, Fernandez’s mother, Maritza, his beloved abuela, Olga, girlfriend Maria Arias, a roster of former and current Marlins and scores of family and friends grieved the player killed suddenly in a violent boat crash early Sunday.
Spanning more than two hours, the service celebrated a player who at just 24 was known as much for his big personality and dramatic escape from Cuba as the fierce curve ball that made him one of baseball’s best young talents.
“Every time he greeted you, that smile hit you. It was the window of his soul,” his agent, Scott Boras, said in a tribute he struggled to tell through tears.
“His two most passionate places were on the water and on the mound,” he said. “Both represented his rights and the freedom he most coveted. Ironically, the waters that brought Jose to us are the same waters that took him to a new freedom, the high heavens.”
Fernández was found dead early Sunday after his 33-foot SeaVee, the Kaught Looking, crashed on a jetty leading into Government Cut. State wildlife officers are still investigating the crash, which also killed Eduardo Rivero, 25, and Emilio Macias, 27.
Fernández’s mother, grandmother and girlfriend occupied the front pew in a packed sanctuary filled with the famous and not so famous, brought together by their friend’s death. Singer Mark Anthony sat beside Marlins President David Samson. Behind the family were the pallbearers, some of whom made up a tight-knit group of fishing buddies dubbed JsCrew, clothed in the same black number 16 Fernández jerseys they wore during Wednesday’s public ceremony.
Among the baseball greats: batting coach Barry Bonds, Hall of Famer Tony Pérez, and former Marlins pitcher Alex Fernandez, who befriended the young pitcher. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez and team manager Jack McKeon, from the Marlins 2003 World Series-winning team, also attended. Washington Nationals pitcher and Hialeah native Gio Gonzalez was excused from his team’s Thursday game to attend. The Marlins play them Friday.
“It’s a big fraternity,” Alex Fernandez said before the service, confessing that the young player had left him starstruck. “Being who I am and what I did, I idolized him. That’s how much respect I had for this kid.”
A hearse bearing Fernández’s casket arrived at St. Brendan’s with a police escort about 1:20 p.m., followed by a motorcade carrying his family and nine buses bearing mourners, including Cuban reggaeton singer Alexander Delgado from Gente de Zona. Most exited with their heads bowed, black No.16 pins on their suits.
Teammate Dee Gordon shaved No. 16 on the bottom left hand side of his head. Gonzalez wept on the steps of the church, next to a mound of flowers, candles and Cuban flags left behind Wednesday.
“There may be a better baseball player, but never anyone like him,” said Cuban American fan Antonio Lopez. “Only one player like him is born every century.”
About 60 fans gathered outside the church, many of whom also attended Wednesday’s processional from Marlins Park.
“If we knew where the cemetery was, we'd go too,” said lifelong baseball fan Perla Gonzalez, who spent three hours at the church the day before.
Fernández’s mother emerged from a black car clutching a crucifix, arm in arm with the young pitcher’s grandmother. His girlfriend followed. As they did Wednesday, the pallbearers once again flexed their arms in tribute.
The Rev. Jose Alvarez led a traditional funeral mass, in Spanish and English, searching in his sermon to comfort a family still wrestling with the unexpected death. A large portrait of a grinning Fernández stood on an easel near the altar.
“Death cannot end anything, right? Life continues up there. And the people that live in Christ in eternal life, they’re busy. They are profoundly connected to those that they left behind, to those that they so generously loved,” he said. As evidence, he pointed to Gordon’s surprising homer at Monday’s game against the Mets.
“You don’t believe me? Have a conversation with Dee Gordon, right here, a skinny little guy who was not supposed to hit it that far Monday night,” he said.
One of the most intimate eulogies came from Boras, the agent, who described Fernández’s three greatest moments: buying a house for his mother, becoming a U.S. citizen and learning that he was going to become a father to a daughter the couple planned to name Penelope.
“He called and said, I bought my mother a house. He wept. ‘Can you believe it,’ he said? ‘I’m this little Cuban boy and I bought my mother a home in the United State of America.’”
The father-to-be also worried about what the future held for his daughter.
“He wanted to know, am I going to be a good father? And I told him, you’re going to be a great father because you’re going to treat your child in the same way that your mother treated you and you’ll know exactly what to do,” he said. “The next day he ordered a baseball glove in all those colors he loved and he put ‘Penelope’ on it.”
The story left Arias, Fernández’s girlfriend, hunched over weeping.
Family friend and Tampa attorney Ralph Fernandez said the player faced life in the same way he played baseball.
“He was not rational and prudent. He was a risk-taker and he pushed the envelope with just about everything he did,” he said. “He lived his life like he threw his fast ball: hard. But he enjoyed every second of it.”
Many who spoke talked of Fernández’s unrestrained passion, and of beginnings, not ends, as if death were just another milestone for the All-Star. The funeral, they said, was not a farewell, but the beginning of an immortal tribute.
“He set the standard for making baseball fun,” said team owner Jeffrey Loria. “He was a superstar human being. A year ago he tweeted, and you can look it up, he tweeted, ‘If you were given a book with the story of your life, would you read the end?’ I prefer not to think of this as the end of his life but the beginning of his legend.”
As the service ended, mourners gathered near Fernández’s casket, draped with a white pall embroidered with a gold cross, for a final blessing from Alvarez. The pallbearers, arms again flexed upward, loaded it into the hearse where Fernández’s mother and grandmother, who on Wednesday bestowed kisses on the casket, once again seemed unable to let it go. The family did not disclose burial plans for the player’s remains.