What It Means to Remember Tony Fernandez

For the Toronto Blue Jays of 40 years ago —  a young team, an expansion team, a Major League Baseball team in a non-American country — finding an identity, something for fans to cling to beyond regional affinity and a desire for entertainment, was an uphill battle. They played in Exhibition Stadium, a field not made for baseball, pummeled by wind and snow off the lake. They lost, and lost, and lost again, their roster an endlessly rotating door.

After the buzz of novelty wore off, their attendance dwindled, from fourth in the American League to 11th just four years later. The tainted atmosphere of MLB at the time, with collusion and the constant threat of labor stoppages looming large, didn’t help either. The strike-shortened 1981 season ended in a fifth consecutive last-place finish. The most press the Jays got in the stretch run that year was about struggling third baseman and NBA draftee Danny Ainge’s dreams of switching sports. He finished the season, his last as a major leaguer, batting .187; from the stands of the Ex, a fan threw a basketball at him.

The following year, for the first time in history, the Jays climbed out of last place in the division. (They were sixth out of seven.) And then, in 1983, a breakthrough: They put together a winning record. Dave Stieb was great again; Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield broke out. Though they didn’t, in the end, come close to a playoff spot, they were a very competitive 89-73. More fans attended than ever before; suddenly, there was life here. 

It was in September of that year that Tony Fernandez made his debut. He had been signed in 1979, a teenager out of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic; he was, still, just 21. He came in as a pinch-runner, and he scored on a wild pitch. That was the beginning.

***

Along with players like Stieb, Moseby, and Barfield, Fernandez defined an era of Blue Jays baseball — the turn of a team that had seemed, at times, doomed to be out in the cold. Now they were making pennant runs, facing down giants. The Blue Jays, in a way that they hadn’t before, existed. They became a team worth imagining for. Every such team has characters, and Fernandez was one of the main cast: the scar on his face, the lightness of his grip on the bat, the turn of his arm as he made plays at short, leaping into the air, tall and lithe. Cabeza, he was called: the head, without whom the body cannot function.

Fernandez was there, deeply involved in all the moments accumulated over the half-decade following his debut that created the team’s identity. Even the trade that sent him away from Toronto in 1991 brought back Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter, whose importance to the history of the team needs no introduction. And then, after the defining pinnacle, he returned — a fulfillment, just at the right moment — and became, indelibly, part of the magic of back-to-back World Series wins. In that legendary 15–14 Game 4, it was him driving in five runs — who, along with Carter and Devon White, recorded three hits in the game. There he is, shooting a ball into left, flying into first as John Olerud scores, the 14–9 deficit closing to 14–10. There he is, three days later, flying again, but this time onto the field, the championship won, as Carter touches ’em all. 

Fernandez left again after that and came back once again. Even though he was not long removed from elbow surgery, he managed, at age 37, to put together one last All-Star season in Toronto. At the final All-Star Game of the millennium, he was there, in spite of everything, like a miracle: taking the place of Cal Ripken at short, just as he had a decade prior, his 38 years illuminating his face. 

***

It has been just over a year since Tony Fernandez died, one of the too-many people lost in 2020. He was only 57, dealing with complications from polycystic kidney disease. I never watched him play for the Blue Jays; his days as a player and my existence as a human being on this earth overlapped only a little bit. Perhaps there is some memory, long-discarded, from my days as a little kid in front of the TV — a flash, here and there, of 2001, broadcasts of blue seats overshadowed by the spectacular machine of the Yankees. Still, his era was not my era, and his feats were not the ones that made me first stop and take notice — that made me become a fan.

But I became a fan, much to my enrichment. And I owe everything fandom has brought me to the fans and the teams that came before. There is no community without connection, and for so many Blue Jays fans, a profound source of that connection was Tony Fernandez: in his play, in his outreach work. It is obvious in how he is remembered, how the news of his death affected people — the memories and stories that emerge, the clarity and power of their effects never lost. It is what makes his loss, as with all such loss, so deep. He is a part of the history of baseball, yes, but more importantly, a part of the histories of the many people who were affected by him: his family, his friends, the children he worked with, and the many, many people who saw him on a baseball field in Canada and felt something powerful, something that they couldn’t forget.

That is what makes the whole endeavor of fandom, with all the toxicity it can create and perpetuate, still worthwhile. We are not alone, none of us. We can reach out and see each other in what this man gave us, in what we give each other, in the history we choose to create together. 





RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

newest oldest most voted
mookie28
Member
Member
mookie28

In 1988 I played in a 5 man strat-o-matic league where we all essentially drafted all star level teams from the entire pool of 1987 MLB players. And we didn’t look at the cards before drafting. I picked Tony Fernandez as my SS because I liked him and knew he was good enough that he wouldn’t hold me back at all and he was great for me all season. And I was some random 10 year old kid from Brooklyn that knew the name and the player. I think Cal, Ozzie and Trammell were first 3 shortstops picked.

gtagomori
Member
Member
gtagomori

Do you recall how the power hitters used to have their HRs at 1-4, 1-5? And then some odd ones were 2-2, 2-3, 2-11, 2-12? Even though the odds of an HR would be equal between the two cards I hated the 2-2, etc ones. I have no idea why…….

Just random thoughts. I played way back in the late 70s.

I know one thing. Every kid how played that game learned how to calculate the dice probabilities. Including the d20 modifiers and so forth.