MIAMI — Somber Miami Marlins players and personnel escorted a hearse carrying the body of star pitcher Jose Fernandez from the team’s ballpark Wednesday, as the farewell for their beloved teammate marched on.
As players and fans honored Fernandez’s memory, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio sought a safety probe into the rock jetty where a boat crash claimed the lives of the baseball star and two friends.
Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, manager Don Mattingly, hitting coach Barry Bonds and the players including Marcel Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton wore white T-shirts emblazoned with Fernandez’s image and the letters "RIP" as they slowly walked the hearse away from Marlins Park in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. Many in the crowd of about 1,000 chanted "Jose! Jose!" and some waved Cuban flags in honor of the popular Cuban-American player.
Jose Portuondo, 55, came to the event with his dog, Sophie. He said Fernandez, 24, was a shining example for Cubans who often risk their lives at sea to come to the U.S. seeking freedom. Fernandez defected from the communist island at age 15.
"His is the story of many in South Florida. He brings it home," said Portuondo, who drives a city trolley bus. "Being here, the sadness is just thick in the air."
Junko Sasaki, 40, who is Japanese but spends a lot of time in South Florida, brought an offering of fruit, rice and water to a makeshift memorial to Fernandez that has sprouted up outside the ballpark. She said it was a traditional Japanese way of ensuring the honored dead have what they need in the afterlife.
"It is a Japanese custom. Every day he can eat," she said, adding that Fernandez once tossed her a baseball from the field at a game.
Hundreds of fans streamed into St. Brendan’s Catholic Church later Wednesday for a public viewing, which was scheduled to last into the night. Many said they felt compelled to come not only because of Fernandez’s popularity as a player but also because he was a hero to many in the Cuban-American community.
"I have to be here. I’m a huge fan," said Rick Gerena, 31, an environmental project manager. "He loved everybody. You almost felt like he was one of us out there."
Inside the church, mourners filed past a closed casket framed by flower arrangements in the shapes of the U.S. and Cuban flags, with a large family photo of Fernandez off to one side. Many touched the casket lightly and crossed themselves.
A private funeral Mass is set Thursday for the Fernandez family and Marlins players and personnel.
Rubio, a Florida Republican, sent a letter Wednesday to the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers asking for a review of the century-old jetty and whether it poses a chronic danger to boaters. The jetty, which extends out from Miami’s port, is difficult to see at night especially at high tide, Rubio said.
"While our hearts are heavy with grief for the numerous lives lost every year on the water, we can do more to save others," Rubio wrote. "As a boater myself, I have experienced firsthand the challenges this particular jetty can present to others trying to navigate around it."
Shortly after the 32-foot boat owned by Fernandez crashed early Sunday, the Coast Guard said a lighted buoy that marks the channel opening at the end of the jetty was working properly. The jetty itself does not have lights, but officials say routine reviews have concluded the existing navigational aids are adequate for safety.
Back at the ballpark, the Marlins still had a game to play Wednesday night against the New York Mets. Mets manager Terry Collins and some Mets players were out on the plaza for the procession of Fernandez’s hearse.
"I thought it was important to be there," Collins said. "This is a very large fraternity, and it’s an exclusive fraternity. It’s hard to get in. You need the representation of everybody else out there. We were represented very well and I was proud of that."
Mattingly said he would talk to the team about trying to get back to baseball.
"I’ve never been involved in anything like that. I just keep going back to his mom. It’s hard to see that. It’s hard to imagine that," he said.
The cause of the crash is being investigated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In addition to Fernandez, Emilio Jesus Macias, 27, and 25-year-old Eduardo Rivero also died in the crash.
Investigators have said no evidence of alcohol or drug use was found at the scene, but medical examiner toxicology reports are pending. A Miami River bar and restaurant has confirmed that Fernandez was there before the crash, but it is unclear if he was drinking.
Fernandez was an emerging baseball star known for his exuberant personality and style of play. He was National League Rookie of the Year in 2013 and was a two-time All-Star. This year he set a single-season Marlins strikeout record with 253.
Instead of flowers, the Fernandez family asks for charitable contributions to the JDF16 Foundation, which is online at www.MiamiFoundation.org/jdf16 .