DUNEDIN, Fla. – Former teammates Buck Martinez and Devon White remembered iconic Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Tony Fernandez as a dynamic defender with his own style on and off the field.
“He was never structured. He was a guy that could think on the fly,” said Martinez, who both played with Fernandez and later managed him during the 2001 season. “He could make moves on the infield that nobody else had seen before. He could come up with big hits. He could bunt at opportune times. He would take extra bases, of course, and he led the league in triples. He could run and he could defend.”
White first played against Fernandez as a member of the then California Angels, and later suited up alongside him on the 1993 Blue Jays team that won a second consecutive World Series.
“He had his own style and I don’t think anyone could duplicate that. I think (Troy) Tulowitzki came close, but nothing like Tony,” he said. “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.”
Fernandez died Sunday, at the age of 57, the Blue Jays and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame confirmed Sunday morning.
He’d been in critical condition at a Florida hospital in recent weeks due to kidney complications. In 2017, he revealed that he suffers from Polycystic Kidney Disease, an inherited disorder in which cyst clusters develop in the kidneys, causing them to enlarge and lose function over time.
“We all knew that Tony was sick for quite a while, and that he was in failing health,” said Martinez. “Tony Fernandez was one of the finest people I ever met in baseball. He was a terrific person, first and foremost, a great father, a great husband and a great teammate, a hell of a player. I’ll always remember how much joy he had when he played the game. He loved to play the game. He had so much love for playing. For me, he was a cornerstone of the winning tradition of this organization when he came up in the early 80s. 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 spent the majority of an impactful 17-year big-league career with the Blue Jays, who signed him as an amateur free agent in 1979.
A gifted defender who eventually established a club record with 213 hits in 1986 – a mark Vernon Wells surpassed by two in 2003 – Fernandez forced the Blue Jays to deal beloved shortstop Alfredo Griffin, taking over the position full-time in 1985.
He proceeded to win four consecutive Gold Gloves and earn three all-star nods, but his first run with the Blue Jays ended when he and Fred McGriff were traded to the San Diego Padres for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter on Dec. 5, 1990.
The Blue Jays won their first World Series in 1992, but both Fernandez and Griffin rejoined the club for the title repeat in ’93. Fernandez had two other stints with the Blue Jays before retiring after amassing 2,276 hits and a .288/.347/.399 slash line over 2,158 games.
He’s honoured on the club’s Level of Excellence.
“When I think of Tony and Alfredo (Griffin) and Damo (Damaso Garcia) and Epy Guerrero and all of those terrific people form the Dominican Republic, how much they brought to the Blue Jays organization, it’s a very sad day,” said Martinez. “I remember the day that he was traded to San Diego (on Dec. 5, 1990 for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter). My son, Casey, and I were going to a movie and it came on the radio that the Blue Jays had traded Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez. We were both in shock. My son, of course, was a huge Blue Jays fan, and we just couldn’t understand how they would trade Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff. Obviously it worked out for all parties. It is a sad day, to think that Tony Fernandez has passed at such a young age.”