There have so many great players who wore the Toronto Blue Jays uniform: Joe Carter, Dave Stieb, Carlos Delgado, Roy Halladay come to mind.
Tony Fernandez, though, is often left out of the discussions about the greatest Blue Jays player of all time. And that’s not fair because by the numbers, he was the best to ever wear the blue and white.
Fernandez was part of the first great generation of the Blue Jays in the early 1980s with guys like Stieb, Jimmy Key, Lloyd Moseby, Jesse Barfield, Kelly Gruber, George Bell. He was ever the dependable shortstop making plays that made you wonder how he ever made them. I’m old enough to remember Fernandez and his sidewinder throws to first base across his body, the kind you wonder how he made plays like that because there’s no way anyone should make plays like that.
He made enough of those great plays to win him four consecutive Gold Gloves between 1986 and 1989 and set the fielding percentage record for shortstops of .992 in 1989, which was broken in 1998. That meant he made very few errors.
He was also dangerous at the plate, setting a then-Major League Baseball record for a shortstop of 213 hits in 1986, and was a very effective switch-hitter.
I say “was” in referring to Fernandez because he died on Feb. 15 from complications relating to polycystic kidney disease, a condition he had been suffering from since 2017. He had suffered a stroke a few days before and was placed in a coma but never recovered.
It was a sad way to go for one of the most beloved Blue Jays who ever suited up for the team and who was one of my favourite players growing up. I spent a lot of time going to Blue Jays games in my youth, beginning at the old Exhibition Stadium and moving over to the SkyDome (yes, I still call it the ‘Dome, Rogers Communications), and I knew Fernandez was going to do something good each time.
Watching him get traded to the San Diego Padres with Fred McGriff (another one of my favourite players) in 1990 really sucked because but the Jays got Carter and Roberto Alomar in return so I suppose it wasn’t a total wash. Fernandez would rejoin the Jays in 1993 and helped them win the second of back-to-back World Series titles though everyone remembers what happened in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 6.
Fernandez would end up playing with the Blue Jays on four different occasions, retiring as a Blue Jay in 2001 as the team’s all-time leader in hits (1,583), games played (1,450), singles (1,160) and triples (72). More than anything, Fernandez retired a much-loved and revered member of the Canadian baseball community as he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008. His name also sits on the Blue Jays Level of Excellence at the ‘Dome, the ring around the 400 level of the stadium honouring great players from yesteryear.
Toronto was always Fernandez’s favourite place to be and he even told them so when his name was raised into the Level of Excellence. He also held an annual golf tournament through the Tony Fernandez Foundation in Toronto to help raise money for children back in the Dominican Republic, his birthplace, but he always made sure he stayed in Toronto as often as he could, much like many Latin American stars who came through the Blue Jays system.
I got to meet Fernandez in 1987 at a CIBC branch close to my house in Toronto; CIBC was a major sponsor of the Blue Jays back then and players were always doing meet-and-greets through the bank. A bunch of us rode our bikes with any Blue Jays merchandise we could find to get signed and Fernandez signed everything we had, along with some swag the team brought along. Each of us left with a signed baseball, signed hat, signed shirt and a signed photo. I never knew where all of it went but I have a good idea my dad knows where it ended up.
That day at the bank, Fernandez was smiling all the time and spent quite a few minutes talking to us about what we did as kids in the neighbourhood and how we were doing in school. It was early June, after all. He didn’t have to do any of that – he could have done what a lot of athletes do nowadays: grab your item, sign it, ignore you and walk away. Not Tony Fernandez, though. He wanted to talk about you.
And so another one of the good guys has left us and you know the Blue Jays will be doing something to honour Fernandez once the 2020 Major League Baseball season begins. How could they not? Fernandez loved Toronto and Toronto loved him back.
So long, Tony, and thanks for the autographs.