Obituary: Tony Fernández (1962-2020)

RIP to Tony Fernández, an All-Star and Gold Glove infielder with a 17-year career in the majors. He died on February 15 at the age of 57 after suffering from chronic kidney problems, a recent bout with pneumonia and a stroke. Fernandez, who announced in 2017 that he had Polycistic Kidney Disease, was placed in a medically induced coma in early February as doctors worked to improve his condition. Fernández played for the Toronto Blue Jays (1983-1990, 1993, 1998-99, 2001), San Diego Padres (1991-92), New York Mets (1993), Cincinnati Reds (1994), New York Yankees (1995), Cleveland Indians (1997) and Milwaukee Brewers (2001).

“The Toronto Blue Jays are deeply saddened by the passing of Tony Fernandez today, one of our club’s most celebrated and respected players,” the team said in a statement. “Enshrined forever in Blue Jays history on the Level of Excellence, Tony left an equally indelible mark in the hearts of a generation of Blue Jays fans during his 12 unforgettable seasons with the team. His impact on the baseball community in Toronto and across Canada is immeasurable. Our deepest condolences are with the Fernandez family during this time.”

Octavio Antonio Fernández was born in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, on June 30, 1962. Baseball was close to him right from the start; his family’s house was located close to the right field wall of the city’s baseball stadium. Fernández, one of 10 children, was the son of a sugar cane cutter, and he didn’t own his own glove until he was 16 years old. Before that, he used a glove he made from a milk carton.

Fernández went to high school in San Pedro and was signed by the Blue Jays as an amateur free agent in April 1979. Fernández was pigeon-toed as a youth, the result of a horse-riding accident. His bent legs scared away other scouts, but Jays Latin American scout Epy Guerrero took him to a naval hospital for an operation to straighten his legs. When the youngster graduated from high school, Guerrero signed him.

“I owe so much to Epy Guerrero,” Fernandez said in 1986, “but the way he helped me is typical of the Dominican way. We all want to help each other make it. There’s a long history of that.”

Fernández rose up through the organization fairly quickly, reaching AAA in 1981, when the 19-year-old was in just his second season of pro ball. He spent a full season with AAA Syracuse in 1982 and batted .302 with 22 stolen bases. He also led all International League shortstops with a .964 fielding percentage. He might have made it to the majors but for a late-season arm injury suffered while sliding into home plate. By then, it was pretty clear to the Blue Jays, if not all of baseball, that he was the team’s shortstop of the future.

“Might be the best player we scouted all season — including [Von] Hayes and [Cal] Ripken,” one AL scout told Peter Gammons of the Boston Globe.

Fernández didn’t make the team out of spring training in 1983, possibly because his throwing abilities were still hampered by the arm injury. Still, the switch-hitting shortstop hit well from both sides of the plate, and it seemed that he would supplant starting shortstop Alfredo Griffin sooner rather than later. Griffin and Fernandez, incidentally, were from the same hometown, and even once worked at the same stadium — Griffin as a player and Fernandez as an employee.

“I used to work on the field before the sames when I was 12,” Fernandez said. “I did it because I like baseball and that was the only way I could be in the park.”

After hitting an even .300 in Syracuse in 1983, Fernández was brought to the majors in September. His major-league debut came as a pinch-runner on September 2 against Detroit. He ran for Cliff Johnson and scored after a wild pitch, single and another wild pitch. Taking over as the DH, he flew out against Aurelio Rodriguez later in the game. His first MLB hit, a double, came off the A’s Tim Conroy on September 10 in a 7-5 win. In 15 games, Fernández hit .265.

The Jays started 1984 with Griffin at shortstop and Fernández in the minors, but it wasn’t long before the rookie made his way to the major leagues for good. He slashed .270/.317/.356 in 88 games and impressed with his arm and his defense. Manager Bobby Cox tried to keep both Griffin and Fernández on the field at the same time by moving the rookie to third base. He was decent there, but he was too good at shortstop to be denied that position for long.

When I grew up, Rico Carty was my hero. I’d chase him around town, or follow him to the stadium so I could shag his flies. Then I started playing, and kids would come to the stadium to shag my flies. There was one barefoot boy who always hung around — about 10 years old — and would catch everything with one of those cardboard gloves. Oh, he could field grounders. He ended up taking my job.

Alfredo Griffin, of the 1989 Oakland A’s, on Tony Fernández

If there had been any concerns about Fernández’s game to that point, it was about his durability. He had been nicknamed “Glass” for bring injury prone. Fernández quickly put those fears to rest. He appeared in more than 160 games in 1985 and ’86, leading all of baseball with 163 games in the latter year. Over the next six seasons, he slashed .290/.340/.402 for the Jays. He was named to the All-Star Team in 1986, 1987 and 1989 and won four Gold Glove Awards from 1986-89. He was given MVP votes during each of those years, finishing as high as 8th place in 1987. That year, Fernández batted .322 with a career-high 32 stolen bases. He missed the end of the season after breaking his elbow in a hard collision with Detroit’s Bill Madlock. Not only did it knock Fernández out of the game, it seemed to knock the Jays out of playoff contention.

It wasn’t long before Fernández was being compared to the best of his contemporaries at shortstop — Ozzie Smith for example. Broadcaster Tony Kubek — no slouch at shortstop, either — said in 1985 that the Jays shortstop could improve his footwork and decrease his errors, but his range was probably ahead of Smith. Kubek also raved about his leadership abilities, which is relatively rare for so young a player.

“Tony’s in at the mound, talking to the pitcher more than the older guys in the infield,” he said.

For his part, Fernández ducked any comparisons to Smith or anyone else. “If that is what God has for me, I take it, you know,” he told The Ottawa Citizen. “Everything I do is for His glory, not for the glory of Tony Fernandez.”

On December 5, 1990, the Toronto Blue Jays and San Diego Padres rocked the winter meetings by announcing a trade that sent Fernández and first baseman Fred McGriff to the Padres for second baseman Roberto Alomar and outfielder Joe Carter. The trade was a gutsy one for both teams, but the Jays ultimately picked up a couple of World Series championships with Alomar and Carter as core players. The Padres improved in the standings too, finishing third in each of the seasons that Fernández was on the team, but not enough to return to the postseason.

Fernández picked up pretty much where he left off with his new team. He batted .272 and .275 in 1991 and ’92, respectively. He made the All-Star Team for the fourth time overall and the first (and only) time as a National Leaguer in 1992, singling and scoring off A’s closer Dennis Eckersley. It was the only hit of his All-Star career.

After the 1992 season, Fernández was traded to the New York Mets. From that point onward, he became something of a nomad, playing for six different teams over the final seven seasons of his career. He had some very good seasons over that time, but teams began to use him as more of a utility infielder, with numerous starts at third and second base.

His time with the Mets would have to be considered the low point of his playing career — not atypical of stars who join the Mets. He suffered from illnesses and kidney stones that limited his effectiveness, and being part of the most chaotic clubhouse in baseball probably didn’t help. He batted .225 in 48 games before New York traded Fernández back to Toronto for the second of his eventual four terms with the team. The timing couldn’t have been any better.

Toronto’s starting shortstop Dick Schofield had broken his arm, and attempts to replace him within the organization hadn’t worked. The moment Fernández put on a Blue Jays uniform, he was installed in the starting lineup and started hitting like he’d never left the team. He drove in five runs in just his second game back and ended the year with a .306 average for Toronto, with 50 RBIs in 94 games.

Then came the postseason. Fernández had hit well over .300 in Toronto’s ALCS series in 1985 and 1989, in losing efforts. In 1993, though, he hit .318 in the Championship Series win over the White Sox. He then hit .333 and drove in 9 runs in the World Series — 5 of them in a 15-14 slugfest win in Game Four. The Jays won back-to-back World Series championships, and Fernández won a World Series ring.

Over the offseason, Fernández allegedly turned down a $3.2 million offer to return to the Jays. Instead, he entered into the free agent market and found no better offers. In fact, the best deal he was able to get was a $500,000 contract with the Cincinnati Reds, and he’d have to play third base since Barry Larkin was established at shortstop. Those frustrations boiled over in May, when he packed up his bags and left the team. He returned the next day, the team kept winning, and Fernandez kept playing well — he was on par with Larkin offensively while showing excellent skills at a new position defensively. Still, the contract woes left him feeling disrespected. The Reds were in first place by a half-game by the time the season ended due to the players’ strike, and Fernández quickly moved on from the Reds.

He returned to New York after signing a contract with the Yankees. Fernández was able to move back to his natural position of shortstop, but he ran into two of his old enemies — illness and the New York media. He hit .245 for the Yanks while battling the side effects of an inner ear infection, which affected his depth perception and caused dizziness. It led to accusations in the media that he was dogging it on the field.

“People have been kicking me when I’m down. They don’t know the reason I’ve been the way I am. They don’t care,” he told the New York Daily News. The poor play continued in the AL Division Series, where he hit .238 in a losing effort to the Mariners. He was positioned to enter the 1996 season as a second baseman, as the Yankees were going to give a rookie named Derek Jeter every opportunity to win the shortstop spot. However, Fernández re-broke his right elbow in spring training while diving for a ground ball and was lost for the season.

Fernández re-emerged with the Cleveland Indians in 1997 and hit a career-best 11 home runs while batting .286. The biggest home run of the year, and probably the biggest of his career, came in Game Five of the ALCS against the Baltimore Orioles. His solo blast in the top of the 11th inning off Armando Benitez broke a scoreless tie and sent the Indians to the World Series. Cleveland lost the Series to the Marlins in seven games, but Fernández did his part, batting .471 with 8 hits in 17 at-bats. Unfortunately, he committed an error in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game Seven, allowing the eventual winning run to reach base.

Fernández returned to Toronto for the next two seasons, which marked the first time since his San Diego days that he spent two consecutive Opening Days with the same team. He batted over .320 each year and drove 70+ runs as well. He made his fifth and final All-Star team in 1999 as a third baseman. He spent 2000 with the Seibu Lions of the Japan Pacific League. He finished fourth in the league in hitting (.327 average) and returned to the States in 2001 with the Milwaukee Brewers. He hit .281 for the Brewers but was released as part of a roster crunch. Shortly after, he signed with the Blue Jays and announced it would be his final season. Once again, he hit over .300 with the Jays, though this time it was as a pinch-hitter and occasional DH.

The Jays honored him with “Tony Fernández Day” on September 23, inducting him into the team’s Level of Excellence. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays won the game 1-0, but Fernandez did set a club record by getting his 13th pinch hit of the season.

“It was a great moment, no doubt about that. That’s the way I wanted it to be, just a simple thing. Go out and play baseball and do what I know how to do,” he said after the game.

In his 17-year career, Fernandez slashed .288/.347/.399, with 2,276 hits. He hit 414 doubles, 92 triples and 94 homers, scoring 1,057 runs while picking up 844 RBIs. He stole 246 bases as well. In the field, he had a lifetime .980 fielding percentage at shortstop, plus .962 at third base and .979 at second base. He led the AL in fielding percentage at shortstop twice and the NL at third base in 1994. Per Baseball Reference, he generated 45.3 Wins Above Replacement in his career. He played in five All-Star Games but never started any. That happens when you play the same position as Cal Ripken and Ozzie Smith. Fernández couldn’t catch a break in 1997, when he was an All-Star third baseman. Ripken had switched positions by then, too.

Cleveland’s Orel Hershiser and Tony Fernandez celebrate after clinching the AL Pennant in 1997. Source: News Journal (Mansfield, Ohio), Oct. 16, 1997.

Fernández appeared in eight different postgame series and hit over .300 in six of them. All in all, he had 49 postseason hits, including 11 doubles and a homer, for a .327 batting average. He is the Blue Jays’ all-time leader in games (1,450), hits (1,583) and triples (72). He was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008.

The Tony Fernández Foundation was founded to help disadvantaged youths in his homeland of the Dominican Republic. Fernández operated the charity while running baseball clinics around the country. He was a devoted Christian and became an ordained minister in his retirement. He is survived by his wife Clara and his five children – Joel, Jonathan, Abraham, Andres and Jasmine.

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