Jose Fernandez's funeral procession left Marlins Park shortly after 2:15 Wednesday afternoon under a typical sunny bright-cobalt Miami sky, taking the casket into and through the heart of a Cuban community that had embraced the pitcher as its son, friend, and brother. Traffic was snarled along Calle Ocho and all parts in between. Possibly for the first time ever, no Miamian seemed to mind being stuck in it. After a short private ceremony for family and friends, the procession ended up at St. Brendan's Church, a Catholic sanctuary nestled in the shadow of Columbus High School at SW 32nd Street and 87th Avenue.
Here, Fernandez's family allowed media and fans to view the casket and pay their final respects. But what would normally be a typical memorial for a local celebrity death morphed into the kind of gathering reserved for dignitaries, presidents, and royalty. This wasn't just die-hard baseball fans showing up. This was a seemingly endless crowd of young and old, fans and nonfans, still feeling the ache in their bones, wanting to be there for the fallen Marlins ace, to not only say a final goodbye, but also to share in the collective anguish of a still-reeling community.
This was the last way any of his fans wanted to end up being this close to him. Walking from a muggy, sunny afternoon into the cavernous air-conditioned church, one was immediately met by a large photo of a smiling Jose — that all-too familiar playful, toothy grin greeting each mourner, that handsome baby-face, friendly and welcoming. Fernandez's casket stood at the end of the aisle, flowers strewn atop its dark surface. A cacophony of sobbing began to fill the otherwise quiet sanctuary as each fan paused to take in the scene.
People who would never personally know Jose sobbed as if they had lost a close friend or family member. The body lay inside the casket like a fallen mythological warrior — Cuba's own Achilles. Photographs showing him throwing his filthy stuff at opposing hitters surrounded the casket and dominated the room. This was as close to Jose as most of his fans would ever get, yet the reality of his loss still hadn't fully hit. The line of fans stretched for blocks down 87th Avenue. Many wore his No. 16 jersey; others brought flowers, which they lay in a makeshift memorial at St. Brendan's entrance.
Shortly before the procession left the ballpark, Jose's teammates, clad in white T-shirts that read "RIP," surrounded their baseball brother's hearse to say their final goodbyes. The players, led by Giancarlo Stanton, all reached out and touched the hearse with one hand while they bowed their heads, as adoring fans stood closely behind, taking photos and lingering in the moving moment. As the procession made its way to St. Brendan's, a gaggle of fans stood outside La Carreta restaurant and toasted cortaditos as Fernandez's hearse drove by. Outside the church, fans solemnly and patiently stood in the sun and waited for the doors to open.
This is a collective community in mourning. This is a community that lost an icon they felt they knew. Most stars of Fernandez's stature seem to be unreachable. One could admire their extraordinary skills yet still feel somewhat disconnected. But that was not the case with Jose. He was one of us. He was a kid we all knew, a son we all loved, a genuine human with a heart of gold and a rocket launcher for an arm. The event was reminiscent of Princess Diana's funeral or old images of fallen presidents' processions. But this was a baseball player — one who transcended the game. And more important, he was Cuban — the quintessential Miamian.
With his dominant pitching style and a sure-fire Hall of Fame career ahead of him, Jose Fernandez was, as some fans had dubbed him, Cuban Jesus. But as has been documented time and again since his death, it was his infectious personality and overall humility that endeared him to an otherwise cynical baseball fan base. Even with most feeling indifferent to the Marlins as a team, they still came to watch Jose. They would wave Cuban flags and cheer every strikeout. They waited patiently for autographs and almost always were rewarded with one, along with one of Jose's smiles.
The South Florida Cuban community is a strong, defiant group born of hardship and necessity. It's held together by an undaunted family bond. For them, Jose represented all of that.
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Jose, more than anyone else in America, was the face of the South Florida Cuban community. Whenever he flipped his bat after a home run, angering some old-school ballplayers, that Cuban defiance bled out of every pore. It wasn't anger or cynicism. It was defiance in the face of adversity. Every time he walked off the mound following a strikeout, he'd nod and curl his lip, knowing full well how unhittable he was. He not only mowed down the best the MLB had to offer, but he also did it with defiance. And because of that, every start became an event, every pitch worthy of being captured on camera.
Even when Jose didn't pitch, it was fun just to watch him cheer on his teammates from the dugout with the kind of enthusiasm one associates with kids. He played a game that has certain unwritten rules: You shouldn't smile too much, show off too much, preen too much. He was often mistaken for an arrogant, brazen kid. But he was just a guy who understood, more than most, that he was playing a child's game as a profession. His experience defined his personality, which manifested in gratitude and smiles and fun. Baseball is a fun game, and no one reminded us of that more than Jose. His harrowing journey to escape his homeland is well documented, as is his love for the freedoms that America provided him and his family. Jose knew he was lucky and lived every moment that way. Most 24-year-olds aren't that self-aware.
His impact will be felt for decades. As with most legends who are taken from us too soon, Jose's iconic status will grow in time. His is a story that is all at once implausible, magnificent, triumphant, magical, and tragic. The crowds that his viewing attracted Wednesday are a testament to not only that but also the genuine love an entire community has for a guy they never knew yet knew all too well.