MIAMI -- José Fernández fled his native Cuba at age 15, and five years later, he burst onto the big league stage and blazed an indelible mark on the Marlins, South Florida and the game he risked his life to play at the highest level.Tragically, one of the brightest lights
MIAMI -- José Fernández fled his native Cuba at age 15, and five years later, he burst onto the big league stage and blazed an indelible mark on the Marlins, South Florida and the game he risked his life to play at the highest level.
Tragically, one of the brightest lights in the sport and community is now gone. On Thursday, funeral services were held for the two-time All-Star pitcher at St. Brendan Catholic Church in Miami. The private service was attended by family, friends, members of the Marlins' organization and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.
Fernandez and two friends were killed early Sunday morning in a boating accident off Miami Beach, and it has been an emotional week for those who knew him.
:: Jose Fernandez: 1992-2016 ::
"He touched people, man," Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton said. "He was something special. He's a personality that can't be replaced. You realize more what it meant to have that type of personality, for the outside view. We knew already."
Fernandez reached people of all ages and from all walks of life. Singer/songwriter Marc Anthony, who regularly attends Marlins games, also was among those paying their respect at the church.
Fernandez's story began with hope and promise.
As a teenager in Cuba, Fernandez made three failed tries to defect to the United States, and he spent time in prison for his attempts. He successfully fled on his fourth try, and on that journey, he jumped off his boat to help a woman who fell into the waters. Fernandez was initially unaware that woman was his mother.
Fernandez settled in Tampa, Fla., and in 2011, the Marlins made him the 14th overall selection in the Draft. From Day 1, the hard-throwing right-hander spoke of someday becoming the best pitcher in the game.
Fernandez forged his way through MIami's Minor League system, and his meteoric rise went directly from Class A Advanced Jupiter to the big leagues. He made his MLB debut on April 7, 2013, at 20 years and 250 days old. Armed with a 100-mph fastball and a wipeout slider, Fernandez made an immediate impact; he became a National League All-Star and won the NL Rookie of the Year Award. He was 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA in '13 on a rebuilding team that lost 100 games.
Fernandez's starts -- especially at Marlins Park -- were much more than baseball games. They were theater, and Fernandez embraced the lead role. He put on a show, smiling after he struck a batter out and laughing when a hitter got the best of him.
Fernandez's antics straddled the line of good sportsmanship and showboating. He certainly was much more than a pitcher.
Earlier this season at Turner Field against the Braves, in an extra-innings game he didn't start, the Marlins were out of position players, so Fernandez was called upon to pinch-hit. He ripped the game-winning double, flexing towards his dugout after reaching second.
Fernandez simply loved to play baseball, and he was antsy in the dugout when he wasn't playing. But he had a blast around his teammates, joking and poking fun -- even if the game was on the line.
"I loved that part of him," manager Don Mattingly said. "There's so many things with him that just makes me laugh. He would come over in the sixth inning and be like, 'Do I need to get my spikes on? Do you need me to hit?' And he'd tell me about a pitching change, 'We need a lefty ready for this guy,' and I'd be like, 'I got it, Jose, don't worry.' He was just on and on with that energy."
At the All-Star Game in July at San Diego, Fernandez had a classic showdown with David Ortiz, his biggest baseball hero.
Fernandez first saw Big Papi play in the World Baseball Classic when the Dominican Republic faced Cuba. Ortiz homered that game, and an impressionable Fernandez was a fan since.
At Petco Park, perhaps by fate, Fernandez faced Ortiz in a showdown that stole the show. The two were smiling and talking to each other between pitches. But the moment would ultimately belong to Ortiz, who drew a full-count walk in his final All-Star Game appearance.
Fernandez could have reached back and thrown a 100-mph fastball, but he instead missed badly with a slider -- giving the impression that deep down, he didn't want to strike out his boyhood hero.
Ortiz and Fernandez savored the banter, and the fans ate it up.
Fernandez's final pitch came on Sept. 20 in a 1-0 win over the Nationals at Marlins Park. He threw eight shutout innings, striking out 12 in a gem. Of Fernandez's 76 big league starts, he made this last one his masterpiece performance, pitching with a balance of passion and poise for the first time this season.
Fernandez finished with a 16-8 record and a 2.86 ERA in 182 1/3 innings in 2016. His 253 strikeouts establish a Marlins single-season record.
Fernandez's short but unforgettable career mark ended with a 38-17 record, a 2.58 ERA and 589 strikeouts in 471 1/3 innings.
The numbers speak for themselves, but they don't show how good Fernandez could have been; he was getting even better.
The Marlins will open their final series at Washington against the Nationals on Friday. The franchise must somehow muster up the strength to pick up the pieces.
"It's been a roller coaster of emotions," third baseman Martín Prado said. "We're going to finish up this season as a team and know that we have to move on as a group, and not individually, knowing we have to support Jose's family from this point on, too."
Joe Frisaro has covered the Marlins for MLB.com since 2002. He writes a blog, called The Fish Pond. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro and listen to his podcast.