Rosie DiManno: Toronto’s love affair with Blue Jays great Tony Fernandez was complicated and thrilling

Rosie DiManno: Toronto’s love affair with Blue Jays great Tony Fernandez was complicated and thrilling
Tony Fernandez lying motionless at the plate after being struck flush on the cheek by a 94-m.p.h. slider high and in from Texas pitcher Cecilio Guante, who’d just given up an eighth-inning moonshot to Kelly Gruber.

Tony Fernandez — no longer self-conscious about his English — giving the classiest of speeches at the SkyDome love-in following Toronto’s 1993 World Series triumph.

Tony Fernandez with his nose in the Bible, pre-game, every game.

Tony Fernandez explaining to me during his fourth stint with the Blue Jays why he’d so rarely smiled in his early years in Major League Baseball, seemed always moody and brooding.

“People forget that I was a happy child and a happy young man. Then things … happened. Things I didn’t understand. I became confused. I kept wondering, why are all these bad things happening? Is this how it was meant to end for me? Should I quit now? I went through a lot. My faith was tested. I made mistakes. But I survived those bad times. It was like emotional healing for me. Emotional and spiritual healing.’’

In the younger Fernandez era, he couldn’t even take the good-natured bantering of teammates.

“Teasing, I guess. I never knew how to do it. And I didn’t know that sometimes when people tease you, it means they like you. I thought they were laughing at me. I thought I was being made to be the clown.

“People say now, ‘Oh Tony, it’s good to see you smiling again.’ Well, maybe nobody used to smile at me either. Maybe if someone had smiled at me, maybe it would have made my day too.’’

Fernandez, , was oft misunderstood as a person. And just as often it was his own doing — the prickly personality, the zealous Christian faith that made him seem distant, isolated, in another orbit.

But there was never, and is not now, any ambivalence about his baseball magnificence. And those are the everlasting memories: Fernandez ranging to his left, leaping into the hole, pivot and crisp throw for the double play, arguably the slickest shortstop in Toronto history, definitely the first bona fide homegrown infielder the Blue Jays had ever cultivated.

Through those four tours of duty with the Jays encompassing a dozen seasons — the prodigal son just kept coming back, and not always greeted as hail-fellow-well-met — Fernandez established franchise records in games played (1,450) and hits (1,583), plus single-season records for singles (161) and triples (17).

Even his first departure from the team he joined as a 21-year-old Dominican turned out to be a blessing — stunningly traded by Pat Gillick to San Diego with Fred McGriff for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter, the linchpins in back-to-back World Series championships. As the story goes, Gillick got an earful from his own wife. She called him in a fury after the trade. “Will you get home, before you screw up the team any further.’’

Fernandez was, in a winding way, restored to the Jays for their second World Series title. He drove in nine runs during those finals and batted .333.

But the price he paid for baseball could be traced along the contours of his battered body: puckered flesh, bubble-gum pink, on an elbow shattered when upended by Bill Madlock breaking up a double play and veering a good six feet off the baseline; surgery for the fractured jaw, with an instrument inserted beneath the damaged bone to pop it back into normal alignment; permanent discoloration on his cheek; the knee broken when he tried to avoid a double-play out at first base; a broken hand, countless scars on his shoulders, his knees, his face. He received a World Series ring with the Yankees in 1996 despite breaking his elbow a second time in spring training and missing the entire season — replaced at short by a rookie named Derek Jeter.

Fernandez once told me that he’d been a fragile youngster among 11 siblings — he was a twin — totally dependent on his parents, the timid weakling from whom nothing was expected. “When I first started playing baseball, the other guys would kick me off the field, send me home because I was so terrible. I told myself that I would prove to them I could make it. But I didn’t really believe it, not for a long time. And I was so shy. I always stayed close to hope. My life was home, school, church and the ballpark.’’

Octavio Antonio (Tony) Fernandez Castro was among the splendid cohort of Dominicans who sprung from San Pedro de Macoris, where the game was worshipped. Discovered and recruited by talent scout extraordinaire Epy Guerrero. A skinny teenager, still coltish when he got to The Show, on what always seemed too slender underpinnings, but they allowed him a distinct grace on the lunge and toss. His defensive distinction was marked by an exceptional .992 fielding percentage — tops for his time — and four straight Gold Gloves. He could throw the ball underhanded from anywhere on the field, with mustard on it. Oh yeah, a switch-hitter and five times an all-star.

When Fernandez returned to Toronto for his last go ’round after being released by Milwaukee in 2001, he was feted on Tony Fernandez Day in late September. Mostly a bat off the bench and backup shortstop behind Alex Gonzalez by then. About three weeks earlier, with the Jays leading the Yankees 9-0 in the seventh inning, manager Buck Martinez sent Fernandez in to pinch-hit, bases loaded. He merely tattooed a 3-and-2 fastball into the right-field seats for what was then only the second pinch-hit grand salami in Toronto history.

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That same season — Fernandez had announced he would retire, had wanted to do it as a Blue Jay — he was elevated to the Level of Excellence at the Rogers Centre, seventh recipient thus enshrined.

In Dunedin on Sunday, Martinez recalled with amusement Fernandez’s final game, when he’d left the ballpark unnoticed — while the game was still being played: “We were playing against Cleveland and he’d pinch-hit in the eighth. His spot had come up in the ninth, but he had gone home. That was Tony. That’s the way Tony was and everyone understood that. Chris Woodward had to hit for Tony, the pinch-hitter.’’

Devon White is also at spring training with the Jays. He was teammates with Fernandez in 1993. “When he was at his best, I didn’t want to play against him,” said the one-time stellar outfielder. “When I played against him, I just didn’t want him throwing me out from the hole. That’s what he was known for: throwing off balance, throwing underhand to first base. Those were challenges, like, you’re not going to get me like that.’’

Many former teammates expressed their sadness on social media. “I am heartbroken by the passing of Tony Fernandez,’’ wrote Alomar. “Tony was a truly special person who cared so much about helping people and making a difference in the lives of others. He was a great friend, teammate, father, husband and minister. My thoughts are with his family.’’

Pitcher Todd Stottlemyre: “My heart is so heavy at the loss of former teammate, friend and Champion Tony Fernandez … I will never forget this man. He influenced my life in a positive way. He made everyone around him better. RIP my brother.’’

Close friend Jesse Barfield posted a photo of the two of them laughing. “This is how I will remember Tony. Smooth as silk, graceful, giving, joyous, focused and always someone you can count on, not just in baseball but in life. Just an all-around sincere person. Gone way too soon.’’

Later, the former Blue Jays right fielder recalled that when he thought something was bugging Fernandez, he’d take him to a small space behind the bat rack at old Exhibition Stadium: “What’s bothering you? OK, let’s pray.’’

Fernandez had his come-to-Jesus moment in Boston. “Roy Lee Jackson and I led him to the Lord,” said Barfield, “right there in the baseball chapel.”

On Fernandez’s defensive skills: “He moved like silk. He’s going to be flipping the ball in heaven — to whoever’s playing first base.’’

The baseball world knew Fernandez had been in failing health for some time, suffering from polycystic kidney disease since 2017. His condition had worsened after a stroke earlier this month and he was placed in a medically induced coma at a Florida hospital. But most recent updates from his family suggested his condition had improved.
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