TAMPA — The rain refused to let up, but hundreds packed the risers around Alonso High School's baseball diamond Wednesday night. They always had for Jose Fernandez.
They came to see him when he was a charismatic sophomore throwing 94 mph fastballs in the final state title game. They asked for pictures and autographs when he was drafted 14th overall by the Miami Marlins in 2011, the first in a long line of milestones that led the likes of then-Rays manager Joe Maddon to say he could easily envision a day when Fernandez was "the best pitcher in the game."
But they came Wednesday to stand around home plate with candles, autographs and memories, retelling the story of how Fernandez transformed into a legend. He died early Sunday at the age of 24 in a boat crash off Miami Beach.
"He would have had a Hall of Fame career, he would have been the best pitcher in the major leagues, if he had the chance to," said Jared Desantolo, a 17-year-old infielder for the Alonso Ravens who grew up watching Fernandez play ball with his older brother. "I hope everyone remembers how great he was."
Two others, Emilio Macias, 27, and Eduardo Rivero, 25, also died in the crash.
Hours before the Alonso vigil, somber Miami Marlins players escorted Fernandez's hearse from Marlins Park to a public viewing at St. Brendan Catholic Church in Miami as hundreds looked on. Earlier Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, of Miami, called for an investigation into whether the rock jetty where Fernandez's boat crashed poses a risk for other boaters.
Fernandez was brash, sometimes boastful, but always endearing and joyful, friends said.
When he arrived at Alonso in 2008, he couldn't speak English, but he could speak baseball.
It took four harrowing attempts for Fernandez and his mother and sister to escape Cuba on a speedboat in 2008, when he was 15. He had played baseball in Cuba since he was 5 and was on track to join the Cuban National Team, but to pitch in the majors, his family knew, he had to come to America.
Teachers one after the other recalled his jokes in class, the dirty words his fellow teammates taught him in English and, of course, that throw.
"He was a whirlwind," said former Alonso High principal Louis Diaz. The first time he met the "great, big Cuban kid," his principal said Fernandez told him through a translator that he liked to "throw 96 and hit home runs."
"He really was the real deal," Diaz said.
Fernandez led the Alonso Ravens to two state titles and had a 30-3 overall pitching record in his high school career. He was drafted by the Marlins when he was 20, becoming the first Raven to reach the major leagues and the highest-drafted Hillsborough County player in 14 years. The high school retired his No. 16 jersey.
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.
Rubio countered that the jetty, which extends out from Miami's port, is difficult to see at night, especially at high tide.
The cause of the crash is being investigated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 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. He was not wearing a life vest when he was killed, authorities said.
But that's not what Wayne Crowell, a former Alonso school resource officer, will remember about the boy who, with a big grin, called him "sheriff." He'll recall his father's look of wonderment watching Fernandez play ball, even though he was ailing from Alzheimer's disease. He'll remember the day he finally got to ask Fernandez for his autograph after he made it big, and the ball the baseball player threw to him. And he'll remember the love Fernandez greeted life with, he said.
"Jose really did make it to the big leagues," Crowell said.
Instead of flowers, the Fernandez family asks for charitable contributions to the JDF16 Foundation, which is online at www.miamifoundation.org/jdf16.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.