Former Blue Jays shortstop Tony Fernandez dies at 57
Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, February 16, 2020 10:24AM EST
Last Updated Sunday, February 16, 2020 5:42PM EST
DUNEDIN, Fla. - Buck Martinez remembers referring to Tony Fernandez as “the gadget man” when the two played together on the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1980s.
Fernandez, Martinez recalled, could always pull out all the tools when he needed them.
Fernandez, a five-time all-star and one of the greatest infielders in Blue Jays history, died Sunday. He was 57.
The 1993 World Series winner had battled kidney problems for several years. He was first hospitalized with polycystic kidney disease in 2017.
“For me, he was a cornerstone of the winning tradition of this organization when he came up in the early 80s,” Martinez, now a Blue Jays broadcaster, said Sunday at the team's spring training camp. “He kind of solidified the middle of the infield.
“He was one of those multi-talented guys who could do a lot of things to help you win. A terrific person, first and foremost. I feel sad for his family, his wife and his kids.”
Fernandez was in critical condition in an induced coma at a Florida hospital two weeks ago after developing pneumonia.
The Blue Jays confirmed Fernandez's passing Sunday morning through his son, Jonathan. Imrad Hallim, the director and co-founder of the Tony Fernandez Foundation, said Fernandez was on life support with no brain activity, and was officially taken off the system early Sunday afternoon.
A team statement called Fernandez “one of our club's most celebrated and respected players.”
“His impact on the baseball community in Toronto and across Canada is immeasurable,” the team said. “Our deepest condolences are with the Fernandez family during this time.”
Fernandez, who spent most of his career at shortstop, played 12 seasons over four stints with the Blue Jays. He's the franchise leader in games played (1,450), hits (1,583) and triples (72).
Martinez was Toronto's manager during Fernandez's last stint with the Blue Jays in 2001. Martinez recalled Fernandez's final game, in which he left the stadium early following a pinch-hit appearance in the eighth inning, assuming his day was over.
“We were playing against Cleveland, and he pinch-hit in the eighth. His spot had come up in the ninth, but he had gone home,” Martinez said with a laugh. “That was Tony. That's the way Tony was, and everyone understood that. Chris Woodward had to hit for Tony, the pinch-hitter.”
Originally signed by the Blue Jays in 1979 at the age of 17, Fernandez grew up in humble surroundings in the Dominican Republic.
He first learned to catch using a milk carton as a glove, then went on to win four straight Gold Glove Awards with the Blue Jays from 1986-89.
“He was that talented and that's basically how he built the foundation of a Gold Glove career,” Martinez said. “But I think that's why kids liked him, because he was so enthusiastic.
“He brought so much joy to the game and when he ran onto the field at Exhibition Stadium ... he was playing for the love of the game and that came across to the audience.”
Asked which defensive plays by Fernandez specifically stood out, former teammate Devon White recalled one from Sept. 25, 1987 - before the outfielder was even with the Blue Jays - in which Fernandez broke his elbow during a game against the Detroit Tigers.
Toronto was 1 1/2 games up on Detroit in the race for the American League East title, but capped the season with seven straight losses without Fernandez in the lineup. The Blue Jays would finish the season two games behind the division-winning Tigers.
“We flinched when we saw that (injury) because he was a good guy all around and a good player,” White said.
Fernandez, who made his major-league debut with Toronto in 1983, was part of the Blue Jays' first two playoff teams in '85 and '89 before he was dealt in a stunning, blockbuster trade after the 1990 season.
Then-general manager Pat Gillick dealt Fernandez and first baseman Fred McGriff to the San Diego Padres for second baseman Roberto Alomar and outfielder Joe Carter.
Alomar, now a Hall of Famer, and Carter helped anchor the Blue Jays as they won World Series titles in 1992 and '93.
Fernandez, however, was a key part of that '93 team after the Blue Jays re-acquired the pending free agent in a mid-June trade with the New York Mets. He had nine RBIs and posted a .333 average over the six-game win over the Phillies.
“When he came back with Toronto, we were so defensively strong up the middle,” said White, now a member of the coaching staff on Toronto's triple-A affiliate. “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.”
White lauded Fernandez's unusual style of throwing, saying he hasn't seen many other players duplicate it since.
“I think (Troy) Tulowitzki came close, but nothing like Tony,” White said.
Fernandez batted .306 in 94 regular-season games for the Blue Jays in 1993. He posted a .318 average in the American League Championship Series against the Chicago White Sox and had a .423 on-base percentage against the Phillies.
After stints with the Cincinnati Reds and New York Yankees, Fernandez fell just short of winning another World Series with Cleveland in 1997 as the Indians lost Game 7 to the Florida Marlins that year.
Fernandez returned to the Blue Jays in 1998 and made the all-star game in 1999. He spent the following season in Japan before returning to MLB in 2001, finishing his career with 48 games with Toronto after he was released by the Milwaukee Brewers.
Martinez recalled the quiet Fernandez as being a “very, very funny guy,” who would often tease former teammate George Bell whenever he got the chance.
“I'll never forget a couple years ago, we were all together and Tony ... said something to the effect that George Bell and Michael Jackson had a lot in common - they both wear a glove for no obvious reason,” Martinez said.
“But that was Tony's sense of humour. And I think that's the thing that we knew and loved about him, that a lot of people didn't know how much of a sense of humour he had.”
The Blue Jays put Fernandez on their Level of Excellence at Rogers Centre late in the 2001 season. Fernandez was the seventh recipient of the honour, and the second infielder after Alomar.
After his retirement, Fernandez was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.
Funeral arrangements were pending.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 16, 2020.