Saturday, February 15, 2020

SS Equals Shortstop and Silky Smooth: Tony Fernandez (1962-2020)

Mike Slaughter/Getty Images

This is not how I wanted to make my return to the JITH writer pool. In fact, it had reached the point where I wasn't sure if I was ever going to write another post, but Octavio Antonio Fernandez Castro's passing has snapped me out of my stupour, and compelled me to submit this offering that will attempt to put into words the on-field exploits of the man who had four different stints with our Blue Jays. I have no personal first hand accounts of the way he conducted himself off the field, but there's no shortage of them online. Here, here, and here for example. Join me on the other side, as we celebrate the life and career of the late, great Tony Fernandez.

David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Tony came into the Blue Jay family on April 24, 1979, when he was signed by the legendary Dominican scout Epy Guerrero, out of the shortstop factory known as San Pedro de Macoris, in the Dominican Republic. He was 16 years old at the time, and I highly doubt that he was anywhere near the 6'2", 165 lb man that Baseball-Reference says he became during his playing career. The kid was a string bean, with knock-knees, in particular a bad right knee (a chipped bone that Guerrero apparently arranged and paid for an operation to repair, before signing him), who came from grinding poverty. He was nicknamed "Cabeza" (Head) as a child due to the disproportionate size of his head relative to the rest of his body. Wonderful smile, but definitely not the prototypical baseball body that scouts look for. Guerrero saw something in him, that he felt was worth taking a chance on though. Tony overcame what some might've seen as sizeable impediments to become one of the most gorgeous shortstops to ever play in the big leagues.

Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

I first became aware of him during the players' strike of 1981. When you're 11 years old, the summer tends to go by very slowly. When you're an 11 year old baseball fanatic in need of your daily baseball fix, in the middle of a players' strike, it seems to go by with all the speed of an IV drip. Baseball America was founded that year by Canadian Allan Simpson, who started it in his garage in BC. As far as I can tell, they began their organizational top ten prospect rankings in 1983 (Fernandez topped the Blue Jays' list in 1983 and 1984), and their top 100 MLB prospect rankings in 1990, so at that time, there was no source for prospect rankings. All you had to go on was the sports section of your local newspaper, and you relied on its writers to bring you the information you needed. I stumbled upon an article that talked about this kid in the system named Tony Fernandez, who was going to take Alfredo Griffin's job. Tony became my first prospect crush, but there was a bit of an internal tug of war for me, as Alfredo Griffin was my favourite player, and I was damned if this young upstart was going to replace "el Brujo" (The Magician). Pictured below Left to Right: Tony, Tom Henke, and George Bell.

Jeff Goode/Getty Images

Fast forward to 1983, and the first Monday Night Baseball on ABC game in franchise history on July 18. First nationally televised game in fact. My man Alfredo stole the show, with 5 jaw dropping plays (He didn't get the call from 1B ump Bill Kunkel on the first one, even though the replay showed otherwise) in the field against the Royals in an 8-2 romp for the good guys, and probably made Howard Cosell's ever present cigar drop out of his mouth in astonishment. Al Michaels and Earl Weaver were certainly impressed, as Earl waxed poetic about how Griffin's performance was all-star worthy, and put him in the company of Mark Belanger, Ozzie Smith, and Luis Aparicio as a defender. Am I some sort of freak with an eidetic memory? Nah. I just put this and this together to jog it. Griffin's plays happen around 54:30, 1:15:40, 1:17:30, 1:24:45, and 1:34:35 of the video, if you're interested. The Alfredo fan in me said "take that Tony Fernandez!". Cut me some slack. I was 13.

Tony came to the big leagues about six weeks later, and despite limited playing time the rest of that year, and 1984, his talent was obvious, and it became quite evident that it was only a matter of time until he would supplant Griffin. On December 8, 1984, Griffin, and another popular Blue Jay, Dave Collins, were shipped off to the A's in what turned out to be a disastrous trade, in return for Bill Caudill. Caudill rapidly went from closer, to setup guy, to middle reliever, to mopup guy, to Do Not Use guy, to released just prior to the 1987 season. The important thing was that the path had been cleared for Tony, and the job was now his for better or worse.

Here he is with Alfredo Griffin, a guy who mentored him all the way back to his San Pedro de Macoris days. As a kid in the Dominican, Tony made a pretty bold statement to Alfredo (according to Blue Jays' broadcaster Tony Kubek), when he said "One day, I'm gonna take your job". I think he meant on a Dominican based team, but as it turned out, truer words were never spoken.

Keith Beaty/Getty Images

How does one best describe Tony Fernandez as a ballplayer? Well, start with Rudolf Nureyev, add in your favourite painter, wordsmith, actor, musician, and any of your favourites in the other arts. Now, roll them all into one. That was Tony (video evidence below, with a warning. Please, please turn the volume down. You'll thank me later). He defied gravity, and several other laws of nature, but he did it with such regularity that he no longer defied them, if you get my drift. Over the top? Sure. Guilty as charged. But when someone turns the spectacular into the routine as often as he did, he's earned some bonus points. At the plate, he was a magician, the bat was his wand. Sort of Rod Carew-ish, Tony Gwynn-ish, or Ichiro-ish. In the field, he was brilliant, blessed with tremendous range, quickness, leaping ability, and an arm that you had to see to believe, and even then you wouldn't have believed it. His onfield eloquence often rendered those watching him speechless, except to ask themselves if they'd just witnessed an optical illusion of some sort.

He was not the best hitting shortstop to ever play the game. By the numbers, he was not the best fielding shortstop to ever play the game (by the eyes, he's probably in the conversation). He was neither the best baserunner nor base stealer to ever play the position. But...There simply wasn't a shortstop like him before he arrived, and there hasn't been a shortstop like him, since he left. Two skills that he perfected over time stood out for me. He threw the ball from way down under, and could do so from any spot on the field accurately, with a lot of mustard on it. He also perfected the slug bunt, or butcher boy as it's otherwise known. He would square around to bunt, pull the bat back, and take a short chopping stroke at the pitch in an attempt to hit it by the charging corner infielder. I'd bet the lives of those infielders flashed before their eyes when he decided to do this.

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Tony quickly proved that the Jays had nothing to worry about after they'd traded Griffin away. From 1985 through 1990, he placed #14 in bWAR, and fWAR, and #20 in WAA for position players, in all of MLB. Incidentally, another Blue Jays' fan favourite, Jesse Barfield, was #7 on all three lists. Tony was sandwiched between Brett Butler and Andy Van Slyke on the bWAR list, Kirby Puckett and Tony Gwynn on the fWAR list, and Brett Butler and Don Mattingly on the WAA list. Pretty good company if you ask me. His only problem was that Ozzie Smith, Cal Ripken, and Alan Trammell were three shortstops that were still at the height of their powers (all top five MLB players by those metrics in that time period). Nonetheless, Tony would make 3 All-Star teams, and win 4 consecutive Gold Gloves (1986-1989) in that six season time frame. He would make two more All-Star games in his career. During those years, there was also this (picture below; I was there; it was awesome), to seal the AL East crown, in the division clinching game in 1985, in addition to another postseason appearance in 1989.

Colin McConnell/Getty Images

December 5, 1990 at the Winter Meetings. For Blue Jays' fans, there was a huge dichotomy to this day, as it probably provoked great anger amongst the Blue Jay fanbase, and at the same time would become one of the huge turning points in franchise history. I remember being blown away, and shaken by it, but not angry, however I doubt that that was a universal reaction in Blue Jays' fandom. Tony Fernandez (who would turn 29 during the 1991 season), and the just turned 27-year old Fred McGriff were off to the San Diego Padres, for some soon to be 23-year old unproven kid named Roberto Alomar, and the recognizable, soon to be 31-year old veteran Joe Carter. This was an absolute bombshell, and still holds up today as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, trades ever made. Doris Gillick (Pat's wife), was one of those fans, whose favourite player was Fred McGriff. She was very angry indeed, and unlike other fans, had a direct line to the man responsible for the deal. As the story goes, she called him up in a fit of pique, and demanded: "Will you get home, before you screw up the team any further?". With that, Tony's time as a Blue Jay was over. Thankfully, it wouldn't prove to be his final stint with the club. He couldn't get enough of us, and we of him.

Manny Millan/Getty Images

It wouldn't take too long for him to return for his second go-round. On June 11, 1993, he rejoined the team in a trade with the Mets in return for Darrin Jackson. He came to a team with an already ridiculous lineup, made even more so by the acquisition of Rickey Henderson at the trade deadline. This was the first year of WAMCO (Devon White, Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor, Joe Carter, and John Olerud). Upon Henderson's arrival, Tony mostly hit seventh, which is kind of hilarious if you stop and think about it. Not so for opposing pitchers I would surmise. He had not done well with the Mets, hitting .225, with a .618 OPS (69 OPS+), but turned on the jets for us down the stretch, hitting .306, with an .803 OPS (115 OPS+). This would become a bit of a pattern for him. No matter where he went when he left the Blue Jays, he would seemingly always do better here upon his return. We all know what happened in 1993, and Tony played a huge role in it, knocking in nine runs in the World Series against the Phillies, including five in the incredible 15-14 Game 4 comeback victory (video below). He would leave as a free agent after the season, but this time he left with a World Series ring.

I doubt Ernie Banks ever said "Let's play three!", but Tony got to when he signed with the Blue Jays on December 8, 1997. He was coming off a tough World Series loss with the Clevelands, where he was unfairly held up as the goat, when his Game 7, 11th inning error helped lead to the winning run in a 3-2 loss. In my opinion, you win or lose as a team. Without his third inning, two-run single, are they even in a position to win? Parallel universe stuff I know, but it gets swept aside in the rush to judgment that is World Series lore. This time, in his two seasons here, he was 36 and 37, but he once again found the fountain of youth (or maybe the Toronto home cooking?). He hit a combined .324, with a .407 OBP, and an .862 OPS (123 OPS+), and went to the All-Star game in 1999 as a 37-year old. While those two teams were a ton of fun to watch, the glory of his previous visit was unfortunately not in the cards. At the end of 1999, he was off on another adventure, as he signed with the Seibu Lions of the Japan Pacific League.

Doug Griffin/Getty Images

Once more with feeling. On May 29, 2001, the Milwaukee Brewers released Tony, allowing Gord Ash to bring him back one more time on June 8, 2001. Now 39, he was pretty much a pinch hitter, with very occasional DH duties. He didn't get much playing time (62 PA in all), but still managed to put up a .305 batting average, and a .746 OPS. How? If you haven't figured it out by now, it's because he's Tony Fernandez silly. He was at the tail end of his baseball career, but he had one more big moment left in him.

Hat tip to Callum Hughson of, as somehow, I had completely forgotten this moment. Prior to a series against the Yankees in September, 2001, the Blue Jays announced that Tuesday, September 4, 2001, against the Yankees, would be "Tony Fernandez Day", which would give the team and the fans a chance to pay tribute to him and to his career throughout the game. Tony started the game on the bench as he had done most of his time as a Blue Jay that year. I guess manager Buck Martinez was looking for the perfect opportunity for Tony on his big day. It was a good pitching matchup with a young Chris Carpenter going up against the more seasoned Andy Pettitte.

The Blue Jays rocked Pettitte for five runs in the first inning, and didn't let up, getting out to a 9-0 lead through four. Future Blue Jay Ted Lilly relieved Pettitte after Andy gave up 7 runs over the first three innings, but couldn't stem the tide either. Bottom of the seventh inning, still 9-0, still no Tony. Cesar Izturis led off with a single. Alberto Castillo followed with a strikeout. Chris Latham pinch hit for Jose Cruz Jr, and stroked a line drive single into right, and Alex Gonzalez followed with a walk to load the bases. Shannon Stewart was due up next.

Here you go Buck. Here it is. On a silver platter. He called back Stewart, and sent Tony to the plate to pinch hit. Tony worked the count full, and the next pitch was something out of "The Natural". You can't make this stuff up. Of course Tony drilled a grand slam to left-centre field because...Tony. This moment is definitely in the Johnny Mac Father's Day HR category, and it's absolutely killing me that I have no recollection of it. Thank you, thank you, thank you Mr. Hughson.

He played his final game on October 7th, pinch hitting for Luis Lopez to lead off the eighth against Jake Westbrook of the Clevelands. Rookie CC Sabathia had started the game for Cleveland, and the infamous John Rocker picked up the save in a 3-2 loss. I have no recollection of the result of Tony's at bat, which was an unassisted groundout to first base apparently. I do recall his walking off the field in a game for the final time in his career, to a standing ovation, because I was there, having just turned 32, bawling like a baby in the 5th deck, like many others around me. More Tony highlights because why not? The same crank down the volume warning applies here.

I haven't touched on his private, off the field life, because frankly, I wasn't there, and I don't feel qualified to do so. I did not know the man. Based on what I've read about him, I have no doubt that in the coming days, there will be multiple glowing reports about his class, humility, grace, kindness, generosity etc from those that knew him. I've already directed you to a few, and there will be more.

I'm not one to give parenting advice because I'm not a parent, but if you're looking for someone for your young baseball nut to emulate at SS, focus on what Tony was like off the field, and shoot for that. Had I been shown his on field exploits as a whippersnapper, I'm pretty sure I'd have given up in frustration pretty quickly, due to his unique style. Even though they broke our hearts many times, I'd stick with Alan Trammell or Cal Ripken for the on field stuff. They were both brilliant, and more conventional. If you're asking me which of those three I'd want to watch an endless highlight reel of, I think you need to re-read this article.

Dear Blue Jays' organization: Please retire the #1 for Tony. While you're at it, please retire #37 (Dave Stieb), #19 (Jose Bautista), #25 (Carlos Delgado), and #29 (Joe Carter). Could we please do this before these people are too sick, or worse, to enjoy the moment with their families? Is it really too much to ask? I suppose the problem with this is that once you begin, where do you draw the line? Fair enough. Just some suggestions for your consideration.

David Cooper/Getty Images

Best wishes, thoughts, and prayers from the JITH family to the Fernandez family at this terribly difficult time. He was a beautiful baseball player, but more importantly, a beautiful human being. Thank you for sharing his bright light with us.