In five years of putting together these Flashback Friday features, it’s strange to think very few of them have focused on the best shortstop to play for the Toronto Blue Jays.
This week, I’m hoping to rectify that injustice by featuring the man that suited up not once, not twice, not even thrice but four times for the Blue Jays: Mr. Tony Fernandez.
His name sits on the Level of Excellence at the Rogers Centre, and it’s for good reason; Fernandez was instrumental in the Blue Jays’ success and in many ways, he was the heart and soul of the Blue Jays in the mid-to-late eighties.
Fernandez was brought to the Blue Jays by the way of famed scout, Epy Guerrero. The story is that many scouts overlooked Fernandez because he walked with a limp, but Guerrero saw a great deal of potential.
The Washington Post went in-depth to detail the history between Fernandez and Guerrero, which goes all the way back to when Fernandez was just 11 years old in the Dominican Republic when he used a milk carton as a baseball glove.
Guerrero paid out of pocket for Fernandez to have bone chips removed from his knee and subsequently signed him to a contract with the Blue Jays. That deal proved to be one of the most valuable amateur free agent signings in Blue Jays history.
It wasn’t long before Fernandez became the Blue Jays’ everyday shortstop. By 1985, he had become part of the young, Latin core that would propel the team to their first postseason berth.
|Via Ron Bull/Toronto Star|
By 1986, Fernandez cemented himself as one of the game’s best defenders by winning a Gold Glove Award. He also garnered his very first All-Star Game selection and settled in nicely as the Blue Jays’ new leadoff hitter.
While most will likely remember Fernandez for his glove, but he was also a switch-hitting offensive threat.
Fernandez holds the franchise record for most hits (1,583), most triples (72) and most singles (1,160).
By 1990, most of the players who were a big part of Blue Jays’ success had parted ways with the club: George Bell, Lloyd Moseby and Fernandez would all find themselves with other organizations.
Fernandez was famously packaged along with Fred McGriff to bring in Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter from the San Diego Padres. The rest was history, but it wasn’t too long before Fernandez would find his way back to the Blue Jays.
Pat Gillick brought Fernandez back on June 11th 1993, and ultimately Fernandez would receive what many of his teammates didn’t in the mid-eighties: a World Series ring.
Fernandez walked as a free agent at the end of the 1993 season, but five years later in 1998, he embarked on his third tour with the Toronto Blue Jays by signing a two-year, $4.25 million contract.
Although his defensive skills had somewhat deteriorated, it was almost as if Fernandez had discovered the fountain of youth at the plate. He posted his two best offensive seasons of his career in 1998 and 1999.
In 1999, Fernandez flirted with .400 until the end of June and ultimately finished the season with a .328 batting average and 159 hits under his belt.
Fernandez spent the 2000 season in Japan before signing with the Blue Jays mid-way through the 2001 season. At 39 years old, they used predominantly him as a pinch hitter, but Fernandez had the odd start at DH.
While many Major Leaguers rarely get the opportunity to leave the game on their own terms, Fernandez did. His career came full circle with the Blue Jays, and they even had a day in his honour on September 23rd, 2011 as played out his final days in the big leagues.
The lasting image I’ll always remember of Fernandez is him high-fiving Bell in the outfield as they secured the final out to win the AL East in 1985.
|Via Colin McConnell/Toronto Star|
If you go back and watch the replay of that final catch, even though Bell was parked under the ball, you can see Fernandez making his way into left field just in case. Fernandez said the reason for that was “he just wanted to make sure Bell didn’t drop the ball”.
Fernandez played for the Blue Jays during three distinct eras; the expansion club that rose to prominence in the mid-eighties, the World Series Champions of the early 90s, and the new era of Blue Jays baseball in the late 90s.
A few years ago at BJH, we attempted to crown the quintessential Blue Jay of all time, and friend of the blog Mr. Zubes made this eloquent case for Fernandez. It’s a far better tribute than I could ever write.
“The beginning of the Tony Fernandez era was the beginning of winning baseball in Toronto. He represents what attracted so many people to the Jays in the first place. He helped this city fall in love with baseball with flair and fun in the field.
His sidearm throw across the diamond was money in the bank every time. Hailing from the Dominican Republic, Fernandez also represents Toronto as a prime example of a place for Latin baseball players to thrive and be celebrated.
Who else provides a link between the teams of the 80s, the World Series years and the wilderness years of the late nineties. The fact that Tony seemed to save his best hitting years for his three different tour of duties with the Jays cements him in my mind as the quintessential Blue Jay.”
Image courtesy of Focus on Sports/Getty Images