Tony Fernandez

After becoming a regular with the Blue Jays midway into the 1984 season, Fernandez challenged Cal Ripken, Jr. and Alan Trammell as the American League‘s best shortstop. A great defensive player, he led AL shortstops in putouts and fielding percentage in 1986. Rarely walking or striking out, Fernandez averaged around 600 at-bats per season in his prime.

A speedy switch-hitter from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, Fernandez first caught the eye of manager Tony LaRussa in 1974. Just 12 years old, he promised LaRussa that he would someday play for him in the majors. As it turned out, he did so thirteen years later — in the 1987 All-Star Game.

Fernandez had good extra-base power and his career average was nearly the same from both sides of the plate. He holds most Blue Jay records for switch-hitters. In 1986 he became the first Blue Jay to record a 200-hit season, setting a major league record for most hits by a shortstop in this century by collecting 212 of his 213 hits at that position.

Fernandez showed toughness, often playing with injuries. In one stretch he played in a Blue Jay-record 403 consecutive games. The elbow injury he sustained on a slide by Detroit’s Bill Madlock with a week to go in the 1987 season was a turning point in the AL East pennant race, and the injury affected his play for the first half of the 1988 season. Fernandez was beaned by Cecilio Guante in April 1989 after hitting a grand slam earlier in the game. He returned to the Blue Jay lineup following reconstructive face surgery and — tutored by former batting champ Rod Carew — socked a career-high 11 homers.

Fernandez went to San Diego with Fred McGriff in December 1990 as part of the blockbuster deal that brought Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar to Toronto, and spent two productive years with the Padres, earning his fourth All-Star nod in 1992. But Fernandez’s numbers, while solid, never matched up to Alomar’s, and his large contract was deemed too expensive for the parsimonious Padres. On October 26th, 1992 — the same day Alomar, Carter and the rest of the Blue Jays celebrated their World Series victory — Fernandez was dealt to the New York Mets for prospects Wally Whitehurst, D.J. Dozier and Raul Casanova.

Unhappy with the deal and hindered by kidney stones, Fernandez didn’t hit in the Big Apple and was sent back to Toronto for Darrin Jackson in June. Reinstated as the Blue Jays’ shortstop, Fernandez went on a tear as the club captured their second consecutive championship. He moved to Cincinnati in ’94 (playing mostly third base, a position he hadn’t manned since 1984, against his will) and on to the Yankees in 1996, charged with keeping the shortstop position warm for phenom Derek Jeter.

After sitting out the entire 1996 season with an elbow injury, Fernandez signed with Cleveland, where he played mainly second and third. (To Indians fans, he is best remembered for a home run off Armando Benitez in Game Six of the ALCS that sent them to the World Series … and, in the World Series, a crucial error that set up the Florida Marlins‘ winning run in Game Seven.) In 1998 he returned to Toronto — again — as a utility infielder off the bench. His .321 average earned him a new contract after the season and the Jays’ third-base job the following spring.

Well into his thirties, the veteran infielder shocked the baseball world by carrying a .400 average through the first three months of the season. (Dubbed “Mr. Gadget” by the Toronto press, Fernandez credited an array of odd-looking workout tools for his success.) In June, he passed Julio Franco as the Dominican Republic’s all-time major-league hits leader. “This guy is a marvel,” his manager Jim Fregosi told reporters. “When I was 37, I was done. D-U-N.”

But Fernandez hit just .251 the rest of the way, and spent the 2000 season in Japan. From afar, he criticized the treatment of Latinos in American baseball. “Latin players should unite so we don’t get stepped on in the United States, because over there they want to have us as slave labor,” he said in March, adding: “A player of my stature, who’s been in the game as long as I have, should be respected more.”