MIAMI (AP) — Despite all his accomplishments, Jose Fernandez never pitched a complete game, and on Thursday he was carried out of church in a casket with too much unfinished business.
The choir struck up "God Bless America," and mourners began to cry yet again as they joined in, celebrating the place that welcomed the Cuban defector and now must say goodbye.
The last formal farewell came at a private Catholic mass attended by about 300 friends and relatives who nearly filled the large sanctuary. Those in attendance included Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, busloads of current and former Miami Marlins players, former Marlins manager Jack McKeon and two Hall of Famers, Marlins executives Tony Perez and Andre Dawson.
"We weren't supposed to be here today," Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria said.
"It's very difficult to understand this," said the Rev. Jose Alvarez, Catholic ministry liaison to the Marlins. "Why so young — someone with such bright promise?"
Fernandez, 24, and two friends died in a boat crash early Sunday near Miami Beach.
The bilingual service lasted more than two hours, and much of the time was spent celebrating Fernandez's dynamic personality, rather than his considerable exploits as the Marlins' precocious ace.
The bulletin for the mass included three photos of Fernandez, and each captured his familiar grin.
"His magnetic smile could light up a ballpark," Loria said. "He set the standard for making baseball fun."
Pallbearers wore black Fernandez jerseys as they carried his casket, while Marlins manager Don Mattingly and third baseman Martin Prado read scripture. The team has grieved in public and offered moving tributes to Fernandez while finishing out the final six games of the season, which ends Sunday.
During the passing of the peace, players lined up to hug and console Fernandez's mother and grandmother, seated in the front row. He also left behind a girlfriend pregnant with their child.
"He was a young man who was larger than life — a good, kind-hearted, loving young man who loved life, who loved people," Alvarez said in his homily. "He was a guy of enormous dimensions. Jose was too good for this league. He's going to a higher league."
Alvarez said Fernandez is already at work in heaven, noting the improbable homer hit by 170-pound Dee Gordon leading off the first inning of the Marlins' emotional first game after the boat crash.
"A skinny little guy like that is not supposed to hit the ball that far," Alvarez said. "Jose is busy, I guarantee you. Jose is still pitching. ... Jose, we'll never forget you. We ask that you never forget us."
Fernandez and his mother defected from Cuba by boat on his fourth try when he was 15. He broke into the majors with Miami in 2013 and quickly became a local celebrity, thanks to his rare combination of charisma and talent, along with a backstory that resonated in South Florida's Cuban community.
Fernandez was a 2013 NL Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Star, but his proudest moment came when he bought his mother a house, said his agent, Scott Boras.
"He was crying," said Boras, crying himself. "He said, 'Can you believe it?! I bought my mother a home in the United States!'"
Boras also recalled a conversation with Fernandez after he had reconstructive elbow surgery, which sidelined him for 14 months in 2014-15.
"His first words in the recovery room to me were, 'You wait. I'm going to be the best there is,'" Boras recalled.
The hard-throwing right-hander went 38-17 in 76 starts over four major league seasons, but glittering statistics weren't the reason Loria said Fernandez will never be replaced or forgotten.
"I prefer not to think of this tragedy as the end of his life," Loria said, "but rather as the beginning of the legend."