Tony Fernandez, whose 17-year big league career included an infamous postseason of highs and lows with Cleveland in 1997, died on Saturday at the age of 57 after complications from a stroke and kidney disease, according to multiple reports.
Fernandez had been in the news in recent weeks as his long battle with polycystic kidney disease, dating back to 2017, intensified and brought him back to the hospital. He was in critical condition earlier in the month due to his battle with kidney disease and Imrad Hallim, the director and co-founder of the Tony Fernandez Foundation, said Fernandez had also developed pneumonia. Fernandez later suffered a stroke and was placed in an induced coma two weeks ago.
Fernandez had been living on dialysis for years and was on the waiting list for a kidney.
The versatile infielder spent the bulk of his career in Toronto. His pro career kicked off in 1979 and he reached the Majors by 1983, spending his first eight seasons with the Blue Jays. During that time, he was one of the top shortstops in the American League defensively, taking home Gold Glove Awards from 1986 to 1989 while being named to the 1986, 1987, and 1989 All-Star teams.
Fernandez was part of a blockbuster trade in the winter of 1990 that had significant effects on both the Toronto and San Diego Padres organizations. He was traded alongside fellow longtime Blue Jay Fred McGriff in exchange for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter.
The Padres’ overhaul landed them winning records and third place finishes in the National League West in 1991 and 1992, while the Blue Jays’ return sent them to the postseason, falling in the American League Championship Series to Minnesota in 1991 before winning the World Series in 1992. Fernandez, an All-Star for San Diego in 1992, was traded by the Padres to the New York Mets just two days after Toronto claimed its first crown. His first of two stays in New York was short, as he was traded back home to Toronto in June of 1993 for outfielder Darrin Jackson.
Fernandez signed with Cincinnati in the offseason and spent the 1994 season with the Reds before returning to New York, this time with the Yankees, in 1995. A fractured elbow suffered late in spring training in 1996 kept him out for the season (and opened the door for a young shortstop by the name of Derek Jeter to become the everyday shortstop in the Bronx for the next 20 years).
The Indians signed Fernandez in the final days of December 1996, giving him the club’s final open 40-man roster spot with the intention of having him battle for the second base spot in spring training with veteran Julio Franco and rookies Damian Jackson and Enrique Wilson. The Indians had tried and failed throughout the winter to find a second baseman (after trading Carlos Baerga, Jeff Kent, and Jose Vizcaino away over the course of the year) and were rejected in pursuits of free agents Ryne Sandberg, Kevin Elster, Mark McLemore, and Tim Naehring. Trade attempts for Boston’s John Valentin and Pittsburgh’s Jay Bell or Jeff King also came up short, but Fernandez was healthy and playing well in winter ball in the Dominican Republic at the time of the deal.
Fernandez’s Indians legacy is unfortunately tied to one particular play as he went from hero to goat in the span of 11 days. Playing second base and shortstop for the Tribe during the season, Fernandez put up some of the better offensive numbers of his career over 120 games during the regular season as the Indians snuck into the postseason with an 86-75 record (Fernandez hit .286 with 11 homers and 44 RBI in helping the team get back to meaningful October baseball). After a 2-for-11 showing in the ALDS against New York, he helped carry the Indians through a tough series with the AL’s best team, the Baltimore Orioles, which had a dozen more wins that the Tribe during the regular season. Fernandez had a big series, hitting .357 while delivering one of the series’ most memorable moments when he homered in the eleventh inning of Game 6 to break a scoreless tie. It came in a game that he only started after scheduled starting second baseman that day, Bip Roberts, was scratched after being hit on the finger during batting practice by a ball hit by Fernandez.
He hit .471 in the World Series against the Florida Marlins and delivered with a key two-out, two-run single in the third to put Cleveland on top, but they were to be the final runs scored in the game. While Fernandez was still in line to be remembered for his heroics at that point, that story changed in the eleventh inning as his error on a routine ground ball by Craig Counsell assisted with the Marlins scoring the winning run later in the inning to walk off with an extra innings World Series championship.
“I won’t make an excuse. I just missed the ball,” Fernandez said after the game about the key turning point of the postseason in a quote in the Plain Dealer. “I wanted to get the lead runner. I think that was a mistake but I knew [Bobby] Bonilla wasn’t running well and that’s why I wanted to get the lead runner.
“I’m glad I contributed. I gave my best. I made a great effort. I don’t think people will remember that. It’s just a part of baseball.”
Fernandez left Cleveland following the World Series heartbreak and headed back across Lake Erie to Toronto, spending two more seasons there while being named to the All-Star team again in 1999 at the age of 37. After a year overseas in 2000 with the Seibu Lions of the Pacific League, he returned to the Majors with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2001. An early season release led to one final reunion in Toronto in his 17th season and 12th with the Blue Jays.
Fernandez was a 2008 inductee into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and the Blue Jays’ “Level of Excellence”. He was the Blue Jays’ all-time leader in games played, hits, singles, triples, position player WAR, and defensive WAR. He is survived by his wife, Clara, and their five children.
Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP (via Getty Images)