Throughout parts of four electrifying seasons, Jose Fernandez lit up Marlins Park and pitched his way into Miami folklore.
He set a major league record for most consecutive starts at home without a loss to begin a career, and played with an exuberance and flair that packed the Little Havana stadium with thousands of additional fans every time he pitched. Sometimes, he excited crowds with only his smile.
On Wednesday, he paid his last visit to the ballpark. His teammates surrounded him. His fans chanted his name. And then, as the hearse that carried his casket pulled down Marlins Way, they waved him home.
Fernandez’s final return to Marlins Park marked the beginning of a public funeral procession that caused Miami to stop and watch one final time as the body of the pitching phenom and beloved Cuban hero traveled to a Coconut Grove shrine, stopped briefly at La Carreta restaurant on Bird Road — reportedly a favorite stop before games — and then to a Westchester church for a public wake that lasted into the night.
The 24-year-old, who rose to stardom after winning his freedom from communist Cuba eight years ago, fleeing by sea, died early Sunday morning along with two friends when his 32-foot sporting vessel, Kaught Looking, crashed into a jetty off South Beach. After three days of mourning, thousands gathered Wednesday to pay their respects and say goodbye.
“Joseíto came here with a dream and accomplished it, but he had to leave, too early,” said Gladys Hurtado, who along with her 11-year-old daughter was among the throng of fans who attended a public viewing at St. Brendan Catholic Church in Westchester.
Wednesday’s memorial began at the Caballero Rivero Woodlawn Funeral Home in Westchester, where Fernandez’s close friends and family gathered to begin the procession. Eight pallbearers, all wearing black Fernandez uniform tops, walked his oak-colored casket to a hearse with their free arms flexed in a show of strength.
The hearse drove to the stadium, where a crowd waited along with Fernandez’s teammates, dressed in white RIP t-shirts. When the hearse arrived, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and Don Mattingly, the team’s manager, huddled with Fernandez’s mother, Maritza Fernandez, and handed her a Fernandez jersey.
At the northwest corner of the stadium, the team and the crowd gathered around the hearse as fans chanted “Jose!” before it left and headed south toward Ermita de la Caridad (Shrine of Our Lady of Charity) in Coconut Grove. The hearse departed at 2:16 p.m. Wednesday — the time an homage to Fernandez’s number 16.
At the shrine, Fernandez’s mother and grandmother leaned into his casket, bestowing heartbreaking kisses. A solemn crowd stood watch beneath a light rain, a violin playing Ave Maria.
The shrine for Our Lady of Charity represents a special place for exiles who have sought solace at the church, where a mural depicts the Virgin Mary and key figures in Cuban history. Throughout the ceremony, as in his life, Fernandez’s Cuban heritage played a prominent role.
He was born in Santa Clara, Cuba, and after several failed escape attempts — including one that got him jailed — fled the island eight years ago. During the trip, he jumped into the water to save a woman who’d fallen off the boat, only to discover it was his mother.
At the shrine, the hearse backed up to steps where the Rev. Juan Rumin Domínguez waited to say a Prayer for the Departed over the coffin. Fernandez’s mother and grandmother, both weeping, as well as his pregnant girlfriend and a train of friends and family exited their cars. As they gathered around Domínguez, a man helped steady the mother and grandmother.
Domínguez issued his blessing and splashed the casket with holy water. Afterward, the women bowed their heads over the coffin and kissed it. Family members then draped Fernandez’s 2016 All-Star Game jersey on the casket, No. 16 facing skyward.
Mourners had gathered outside the place of worship in Coconut Grove about 2 p.m. as church bells rang. Ahead of the funeral procession’s arrival, Domínguez praised the young ballplayer for doing so much in his short life, and led the small crowd in prayer, reciting a Hail Mary in Spanish.
“Let’s ask God to help us live life the same way,” Domínguez continued, saying the young pitcher left behind “a trail of love.”
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who attended the blessing, said the pitcher’s death has crushed the city because he represented the best of Cuban exiles.
“My generation adopted him as a son,” said Regalado, who was born in Cuba.
He met Fernandez several times: at a ballpark ceremony, when he presented him with a key to the city; at the Three Kings Day Parade, and at a museum dedicated to Brigade 2506, the CIA-sponsored team of exiles formed in 1960 to overthrow Fidel Castro.
“You would think that someone that’s a star would not care as much about his roots, but he did,” Regalado said. “He’s the symbol of everything that is Cuba. It’s a loss that everyone has felt as if he were family.”
Brigade 2506 founding member Jorge Gutierrez Izaguirre said Fernandez was very interested in learning about the history of the battle against the Castros. He said Fernandez supported the Cuban exile community, including financially, in a way many celebrities do not.
Among the mourners who greeted the funeral procession was 67-year-old Alba Botero of Miami, who said she works for a refugee program that assisted Fernandez and other ballplayers, including Orlando “El Duque” Hernández. She never met Fernandez but took a vacation day to come pay her respects.
“He was out of the ordinary,” she said. “He was humble. He loved children.”
Fernandez was also proud of his American citizenship, a childhood dream he earned last year. On the way to St. Brendan, the procession made a stop at a La Carreta, where a Cuban and American flag were handed off to owner Felipe Valls.
By the time the hearse approached the church, crowds were already lined up outside in blazing heat. Inside, where vibrant portraits of Fernandez led hundreds of fans down the aisle, his closed casket was flanked by dual bouquets in the form of the U.S. and Cuban flags.
A bountiful arrangement of scarlet roses sat atop the wooden case. Beside it was a photo of him, his mother and his grandmother wearing orange baseball jerseys and gazing at fireworks. Many caressed the casket. Others either had a moment of silence or said a prayer before an eruption of tears.
Thousands passed through the church before the viewing was to end around 11.
At the foot of the stairs, lifelong Marlins fan Marco Garcia left a bouquet of white lilies, a Cuban flag and an American flag for Fernandez. Also a Cuban American, Garcia said Fernandez’s story resonated with him. He called watching Fernandez pitch a “blessing.”
As fans filed in, “Ya no llores por mi,” (Don’t cry for me), by Christian Latin pop music duo Tercer Cielo, played in the church.
“Ya no llores por mí, ya estoy en un lugar lleno de luz.”
Don’t cry for me, I’m in a place full of light.
Miami Herald staff writers Lance Dixon, Andre Fernandez, George Richards and Jenny Staletovich contributed to this report.