Octavio Antonio “Tony” Fernandez Castro began his life in San Pedro de Macoris, a cloistered municipality nestled along the southern shores of the Dominican Republic, founded in the 19th century by Cuban exiles and transformed into a bustling city. It became renowned for pioneering massive social and industrial changes across the country – and in particular, the sport of baseball.
It was also home to their first ever national baseball championship and gave birth to a glorious generation of supremely skilled athletes – Robinson Cano, Pedro Guerrero, Juan Samuel, Alfonso Soriano, to name but a few. This was also the city which literally gifted the Toronto Blue Jays franchise with a superlative cadre of players that would define the team’s future and legitimize them as bona fide contenders.
Familiar names such as George Bell, Damaso Garcia, and Alfredo Griffin are forever etched in the memories of baby boomers and their progeny, remaining an intractable part of the legacy secured by über scout and talent evaluator Epy Guerrero, the man responsible for signing 50 of the most highly coveted Dominican players to MLB teams and single-handedly stocking their roster cupboards full of grandeur for decades to come.
His greatest revelation was likely the discovery of an acne-riddled, gangly teenager whose infield pirouettes and unearthly throws to first base were the stuff of diamond lore; the kind of feats which absolutely needed to be seen in order to grasp the sheer wonderment of a player and his craft.
We remember a figure ranging to his right while on the run, leaping high into the crisp mid-summer’s air, lunging for a screaming liner that’s not only snagged and corralled, but then thrown under-handed across the body and delivered in the most timely and efficient manner possible. Oh, how many hours spent perfecting the mimicry with childhood friends on the sandlots across Toronto – the vaunted and superhuman Fernandez toss. After his promotion to the show in 1983, splitting time at shortstop with his fellow countryman, Alfredo Griffin, he was inevitably named a starter in 1985 and never looked back.
It was abundantly obvious to fans during this era that Tony Fernandez was truly exceptional. His .992 fielding percentage during this time was a record for shortstops and, while Ozzie Smith was staking his claim as the greatest defensive talent in the senior circuit, Tony quietly cemented his reign as the best all-around counterpart in the American League, magnificently highlighted by his four gold gloves, prowess as a consummate leadoff hitter (213 hits in 1986), and deceptive speed (32 stolen bases in 1987).
History, of course, is not without a sense of humour, and some would argue that the period between 1985 and 1991 was full of so many tantalizingly brutal moments and subsequent failures that something almost cataclysmic needed to happen for fans of the team to salvage what remained of their sanity. A bevy of failed playoff runs (Kansas City, Oakland, Minnesota) and disappointing regular seasons (1986-88, 1990) resulted in crushingly high expectations which needed to be satiated (especially) in lieu of a taxpayer-funded brand new stadium, forcing the hand of GM Pat Gillick to unveil his ultimate gambit.
And so on a cloudy December morning during the 1991 winter meetings, in a move that stunned both cities and their respective fanbases, the Toronto Blue Jays dealt away their home-grown shortstop prodigy in a “chemistry altering” transaction with the San Diego Padres which is best remembered as one of the biggest blockbuster trades in the modern era of baseball history.
Gone were the cruel and melancholy memories of an unassailable George Brett, an unstoppable Alan Trammell, a viciously unrepentant Bill Madlock, a mercurial Jose Canseco, and the demigod Kirby Puckett, all valiantly preventing the ascension of Blue Jays hopes and dreams – excised and exorcised, almost overnight, while taking with them the crown jewel of an infielder in his prime and the owner of four straight gold gloves (1986-1989) who had set the record for hits by a shortstop a mere half decade earlier.
His departure was the hardest decision Pat Gillick had to make in his entire baseball career, and in some ways perhaps the most necessary. There were rumours that his own wife lamented the move, no doubt scolding her husband for including the promising young slugger McGriff as part of the package, and for a short time during the winter of that year, many fans found it difficult to fathom the loss of their coveted shortstop in exchange for an unproven second baseman (Alomar) and a “wrong side of 30” left fielder (Carter).
Knowing that the glory days of World Series success erased much of the angst and bitterness isn’t the real solace at hand – for surely it was the return of Fernandez in June of 1993 from the New York Mets and watching him drive in 9 runs during the finals that made me smile broadly then as it does today. Management’s decision to bring him back to enjoy the fruits of years unfulfilled by never getting over the humpwas a tribute to the player, and a love letter to the fans.
Tony left the Jays after his World Series experience and spent a number of years with other teams exporting his fielding artistry and veteran leadership as only a mature, championship caliber stalwart possibly could. And although his travails with the Cleveland Indians were well documented and resulted in irrefutable highs and incredulous lows, there can be no doubting that Tony was leaving his imprint on the game for posterity.
Perhaps it was the fact that he had inadvertently stumbled into middle-age when we weren’t looking, but suddenly the baby-faced teenager who had stolen our hearts was now perceived as a mature and diminishing asset. And rather than submit to the humiliation of paltry MLB offers with strict conditions on playing time, Fernandez did what a dignified, self-respecting player of his era does – he signed with the Seibu Lions of the Nippon Japanese League and continued playing his beloved brand of baseball, getting paid handsomely while performing to the delight of Yamato, Ainu, and Ryukyuan spectators.
But the allure of the big leagues remained, and after signing with the Milwaukee Brewers in February of 2001, Fernandez found himself unceremoniously released after the first month of the new season while hitting .281 with a .352 on-base percentage – numbers that would surely be valued in today’s game. He seemed destined to suffer the ignominious fate of many aging and grizzled veterans well before him. That’s when fate stepped in and dealt him a final curtain call – the Jays picked him up as a free agent and re-acquired their prodigal son for one last tour of duty. He knew his time in the game was nearing an end and that this last hurrah represented the closure he’d always desired and genuinely deserved – poetically, he would finish his career as he began it.
When the franchise honoured him in September of the same year with a revered spot on the Blue Jays’ Level of Excellence, the Jays wasted little time in embracing their most heralded player knowing they couldn’t possibly express their gratitude enough to address such monumental achievements – such was the genuine respect afforded to Fernandez.
Tony finished his career as the franchise leader in games (1,450), hits (1,583), triples (72), ranking in the top-5 with doubles, average, runs, total bases, walks, and stolen bases. That his name isn’t mentioned more often in the media and with the team’s promotional campaigns doesn’t surprise me – his legacy is as reserved as he was in person. This was a humble player who wore humility on his sleeve and distinguished himself with boundless professionalism – bereft of fancy handshakes, surly interviews, or posturing on-field displays.
I still remember that crafty batting stance, that indomitable infield posture, and that fearless warrior who was the veritable embodiment of all the things an athlete should and could be. A part of me wonders if the faithful in Toronto, New York, Cleveland, and Milwaukee really understood the influence of Fernandez and what he meant to this game – just how brilliant he was, and why many who watched him play felt like they were witnessing baseball royalty on display.
For this prince of San Pedro de Macoris found a way to leave an indelible mark in the most unlikely of Northern fantasies – a place where a young boy armed with only a baseball glove and the spirit of a white-winged warbler rose high above himself and took his rightful place amongst the titans of his childhood sport, becoming the greatest player ever to wear a Blue Jays uniform.
Editor’s note: my audio podcast tribute to my childhood baseball hero and the greatest Blue Jays player of all-time can be found here.
(Originally published on January 12th, 2016)