In a poignant speech on the Senate floor, Rubio said the ace pitcher was on his way to a Hall of Fame career and to leading the Miami Marlins to "a couple pennants" before he died Sunday when his 32-foot fishing boat struck a jetty near Government Cut channel.
Miami residents Emilio Macias, 27, and Eduardo Rivero, 25, close friends of the 24-year-old Fernandez, were also on board the vessel and died with him.
"I never met Jose Fernandez, yet I feel like I knew him," Rubio said in his tribute. "And that's how millions of people feel. They feel like they know him. It is, in the end, our story — as Cuban-Americans, as Americans."
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The Miami Republican and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson introduced a resolution honoring Fernandez.
Among the personal qualities and professional accomplishments cited in the measure, it says that Fernandez "came to embody the American dream and was a great source of pride for the Cuban exile community of the United States."
Fernandez's grandfather, Rubio said, tried and failed to defect from Cuba 13 times before succeeding and settling in Tampa
As great a pitcher as he was, the former presidential candidate said, "off the field — as a human being, as a son, as a grandson, as a teammate, as a neighbor — he was even better."
Fernandez's grandfather, Rubio recounted, tried and failed to defect from Cuba 13 times before succeeding and settling in Tampa.
Rubio then told the by-now familiar story of how Fernandez rescued his mother after she fell overboard in 2007 during the family's fourth attempt to leave Cuba while taking a more perilous, longer route to Mexico instead of Florida.
"Jose was 15 years old," Rubio said. "Before America ever met Jose Fernandez, before his fastball earned him millions of dollars, this young man was revealing himself."
Rubio quoted from a 2012 scouting report on the fellow Cuban-American, then 20, that said he "exudes confidence" and had a "no-fear approach" to pitching.
"This was not arrogance," the senator said. "This was the peaceful self-assurance of a kid who had known life and death."
Rubio said he was touched by Fernandez saying that his proudest accomplishment in life was having become a U.S. citizen last year.
"'I consider myself now to be free,'" Rubio quoted the pitcher as having said.
Rubio added: "Jose knew how special and fortunate and blessed he was and we are," Rubio said. "He went from a Cuban prison to a Major League clubhouse. Jose's story was our story. He reminds so many in my community of someone they knew — of a brother or a son or a nephew."