The smile. The energy. The burning, visceral, instinctive need to win, to pitch, to laugh, to cheer, to be. José Fernández didn't just electrify ballparks and light up television screens during his time in the Major Leagues. He was that same person in his short time in the Minors.
Baseball began a painful goodbye to one of its best players and brightest young stars Sunday, hours after the Marlins right-hander was killed in a boating accident in Miami. He was 24 years old.
David Berg managed Fernández for 14 starts of the then-19-year-old's breakout 2012 season with Class A Greensboro, but it was his rehab start three years later that sticks in Berg's mind.
"I remember last year, he came for his last rehab start in Double-A," Jacksonville manager Berg said of Fernandez's outing with the Suns on June 27, 2015, his fifth appearance on the road back from Tommy John surgery a year earlier. "He came down, gave up a few runs, lost the game, and he came in the office afterwards and apologized. He was like, 'I'm sorry.' Are you kidding me? That's just the type of guy he was."
The Marlins chose Fernández in the first round, 14th overall, on June 6, 2011. Less than two years later, he was in the Majors, debuting for Miami on April 7, 2013. During his brief time in the Minors, encompassing 137 1/3 innings over 27 appearances, Fernandez inspired those around him.
"If you go into a Draft or free agency, this is the kind of guy you want, not only on the field but off the field, in the dugout, in the clubhouse," Berg said. "He was good obviously with his talent, but he had unbelievable competitiveness. He would be mad when we'd lose games and he was up in the stands charting. That's how competitive he was. He just wanted to win."
Fernández made his professional debut with with a start for the Rookie-level GCL Marlins and one for the Class A Short Season Jamestown Jammers in 2011, but the next year, he stepped into the on-deck circle of baseball's next generation of stars.
In 25 starts between Greensboro and Class A Advanced Jupiter in 2012, Fernández went 14-1 with a 1.75 ERA, 158 strikeouts in 134 innings, an opponents' average of .191 and a 0.93 WHIP.
"After every start, he would come in and pick the brains of the pitching coach, Blake McGinley, and mine," Berg said. "We had a good relationship. As good as he was, he was eager to learn. He was a sponge. He wanted to know what he could do better, and sometimes it was like, 'Dude, you can't do any better than that.'"
The righty spearheaded a Greensboro no-hitter on April 24 of that season, striking out eight over six innings. After the game, Fernández told MiLB.com some of the details of his treacherous defection from Cuba, including his three failed attempts, one of which resulted in a stay in prison before he successfully made it to freedom.
"He seemed a lot more mature than 19 years old, with everything that he went through," Berg said. "It's hard to put into words. It really is. He truly was one of a kind, just every aspect of him, not only the people that he impacted in the game, but the fans every place that he pitched, the fans in Greensboro, the fans in Jupiter."
After going 7-0 with a 1.59 ERA in 14 outings for the Grasshoppers, Fernández was promoted to the Hammerheads and continued his eye-popping season by going 7-1 with a 1.96 mark in 11 Florida State League starts. The campaign earned the righty the 2012 MiLBY award as the Minor Leagues' most outstanding pitcher.
"To have the talent, the competitiveness, the eagerness to be good and also the impact that he had off the field with the fans was truly one of a kind," Berg said. "He just had fun doing what he was doing."
Sunday's news left Berg, the Marlins family and the baseball world devastated.
"Everybody's shocked," he said. "I just got a text from Blake McGinley, who was his pitching coach in Greensboro with me, and he said he felt like he lost a son."
In four Major League seasons, Fernández went 38-17 with a 2.58 ERA and was named the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year. His final year was one of his best. Fernández earned his second All-Star selection in July and went 16-8 with 2.86 ERA in 29 starts, setting a personal best for wins in a season and leading the senior circuit with 12.49 strikeouts per nine innings.
"Just the way he approached life, he was always happy," Berg said. "He's playing at the peak level of his sport, and just the way he went about it, how much fun he had -- even when he's not pitching -- his actions on the bench, excited for his team to win, just the way he went about it was unbelievable.
"He's a one-of-a-kind guy. We lost one of the best young pitchers in the game."