Mr. Blue Jay

“Tony Fernandez,” opines the back of his 1988 Donruss Diamond Kings card, “is the AL’s answer to Ozzie Smith.” For a complex stew of reasons that statement played like music in the ears of Blue Jays fans. In brief, Canadians—some Canadians—this Canadian—feel the contradictory pull of a sense of superiority vis-à-vis the United States (mostly because we don’t risk insolvency if we break a leg, and we don’t tend to carry sidearms), and a crushing inferiority complex (because America is America, and we’re not). (Note that this didn’t apply to Expos fans, or at least not Francophone Expos fans, who constituted a unique presence, a “distinct society,” within Canadian culture; they weren’t really interested in Americans’ view of them one way or another.)

That lowkey but badgering sense of inferiority was the active ingredient in the fizzy feeling we’d get when Americans deigned to notice the Blue Jays. Comparing Tony Fernández to the Wizard of Oz was like saying that Toronto is bigger than Philadelphia: not immediately obvious to most people, even if evidence backs up the claim.

To love a ball team is to ingest its unique cocktail of announcers’ voices, sponsors’ jingles, silly promotions, subpar graphics, poor economic strategies, uninformed personnel moves, and bad uniforms—a boatload of decisions made by people qualified to do what they do only because they’re already doing it. Canadians reflexively assume our own provincialism, and while the Jays, beginning on a snowy afternoon in 1977, were by definition “big league,” we weren’t sure they looked the part to the outside observer. The team’s record in the early going was predictably awful. Exhibition Stadium was laughably rinky-dink, a pair of single-tiered embankments annoyingly offset from one another, bracketing the saddest expanse of artificial turf you ever saw. The park hosted both the American League and the Canadian Football League, but it was suited for neither. As for the uniforms, we loved them even while suspecting they looked goofy in a specifically Canadian way to anyone but us.

Tony Fernández’ ascension coincided with the Jays’ rise, but it was no coincidence. He was lanky and janky, hunched at the shoulders, calm of demeanor, a pair of flip-downs frequently protruding from his brow. An elite defender who was also a fantastic switch hitter, Fernández was among the first through the pipeline of talent out of San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, “The Cradle of Shortstops.” He inherited the starting job in Toronto from fellow Dominican Alfredo Griffin when the latter was traded with Dave Collins and an envelope full of cash to Oakland for bullpen righty Bill Caudill. Fernández became a fixture at short, hoovering up balls hit into the hole and flipping them to second, or heaving them parabolically with a submarine fling to first, an altogether unnatural motion that he made look cool, easy. Imitating that throwing style as a child almost certainly played a part in the clicking twinge I still feel in my right shoulder when I play catch with my kids.

He was so reliable—161 games played in ’85, and 163 in ’86—that it was fitting, when George Bell sank to his knees after recording the out that secured Toronto’s first AL East title in October, 1985, that Fernández was the first to reach him, trotting out from his post to high five the jubilant left fielder.

Heartbreakingly, Fernández was traded after the 1990 season, shipped to the Padres along with Fred McGriff for Joe Carter and Robbie Alomar, an exchange we had no way of recognizing at the time as the medicine necessary to bring a World Series title to Canada. Fernández wandered around the National League a bit after that, but in ’93 the Jays welcomed him back via midseason trade with the Mets, and he was instrumental in the push for a second straight pennant. Fernández started at shortstop in all six games of the Fall Classic, batting .326 with a series-high 9 RBI.

Then he was gone again, into his second great period of itinerance, to Cincinnati, to the Bronx, to Cleveland, before coming back again, to those middling end-of-century Blue Jays teams for whom third place seemed the natural state of things. He found himself in Japan in 2000, then Milwaukee to begin the 2001 season. When the Brewers released him that summer, there was really only one place it made sense for him to land.

In all he left Toronto three times before he departed baseball for good, but over time it came to seem that he’d always wind up back in a Blue Jays uniform. We never wanted to be rid of him; his departures were only nods to the churning, heartless marketplace of baseball. When he died in February 2020 at just 57 years of age I said, “Oh god, Tony Fernández died.” My son asked me who Tony Fernández was. “He’s Mr. Blue Jay,” I said, as though that explained everything, or anything, but that’s how I’ve long thought of him. He was a part of so many different eras of Blue Jays baseball—the rising team of the mid-’80s, the championship team in ’93, the largely characterless squads of the late-’90s, leading into the Buck Martinez-led team of 2001—that I can’t think of anyone more deserving of the name. I could have said that he was the Jays’ leader in games played, or that he collected more hits in a Toronto uniform than any other player, but I didn’t. I just said “He’s Mr. Blue Jay.”

In those early years—of his career, but also of the franchise’s very existence—Tony Fernández bestowed on our quaint little team something invaluable, something that an ageing Rico Carty or a past-his-prime John Mayberry couldn’t give them, something a pre-NBA Danny Ainge couldn’t will into being: he gave them legitimacy. And as they were our team, that said something about us, too.

The Jays’ standing rose on through him and that ’85 crown (we don’t talk about the ALCS loss to KC), to Bell’s 1987 MVP award, and upward until the grand affirmation of two World Series trophies. But the statement on the back of Fernández’ 1988 Diamond Kings card announced something to the rest of the baseball world, and confirmed for us, that he—and so Toronto, and so all of Canada—was a part of the game, the real game, the big show, the Majors. It was a badge of glossy cardstock, a certificate of authenticity.

And lest you think the comparison with Ozzie Smith unfounded, I’ll just point out their identical career fielding percentages (.978), and Fernández’ superior offensive numbers (a .746 OPS to Smith’s .666, more doubles, triples, and homers, and a higher lifetime average). Tony didn’t do backflips, but you couldn’t watch him long without concluding that he was a wizard, too.

When I collected cards as a kid I loved them all, every single last one of them, but my real favorites were Blue Jays: Bell, Barfield, Moseby. Ernie Whitt and Dave Stieb. Willie Upshaw, who gave way to Fred McGriff at first. Fernández. On the faces of the Topps, O-Pee-Chee, Score, Donruss, and Upper Deck cards in my binders and boxes the entire baseball universe was flattened to two dimensions, arrayed like a map of the Milky Way, so that the whole true cosmography was evident. I spread them out on the floor and marveled at the sight: stars among stars, vast and awesome, their brilliance undimmed by familiarity.

Author: Andrew Forbes

Author of The Only Way Is the Steady Way: Essays on Baseball, Ichiro, and How We Watch the Game. Also: The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays, and the short fiction collections What You Need, and Lands and Forests. Peterborough, Ontario.

7 thoughts on “Mr. Blue Jay”

  1. I love this post so much-growing up a baseball orphan, once I got into the game I devoured stories about the greats of the 1980s and 90s, including a great story in Sports Illustrated about the parade of shortstops – mediocampistas in Spanish – that came from San Pedro de Macoris, Fernandez being the greatest.

    And of course there were the vintage Blue Jays uniforms, with the hockey-like crest in the front and the split number fonts, all in different shades of blue. Great memories, and we lost Fernandez far too early.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is a great article for us Blue Jays/Toronto-based fans. Fernandez was indeed Mr. Blue Jay. I know exactly what the author meant when he referred to being a kid on the schoolyard and trying to imitate Fernandez’ trademark backhand fielding and flip throw.

    It stung when he was dealt in the surprise trade in 1990 but everyone was thrilled when he came back in 1993 and he was magnificent in helping to take down the Phillies in the World Series especially the epic 15-14 comeback win in Game 4 in the rain at the Vet.

    When I was a student, I was at a game late in 2001 with an American Cubs fan from my university dorm, about a week before the 9/11 tragedy. It was Yankees at Blue Jays. Chris Carpenter pitched a complete game blowout win, something like 13 or 14 to nothing for the Jays which was astonishing as this was when New York was the three-time defending World champs on their way to a fourth straight AL pennant.

    At some point, Fernandez pinch hit with the bases loaded. As the crowd started cheering louder and louder knowing it was probably one of his last appearances, my American classmate was bewildered by the outpouring of love for Fernandez.

    I reassured him that it was warranted because of Fernandez’ long and productive tenure with the Jays.

    Fernandez hit the next pitch for a grand slam; it was his last major league home run.

    I nearly had tears in my eyes as it reminded me of how much Fernandez meant to everyone in Ontario growing up watching the formative years of the Jays.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love this. Thanks for sharing. I had a similar experience at a Yanks-Jays game that we knew would be Carlos Delgado’s last with Toronto, though nothing was official. It was an outpouring of love, and I remember it vividly.

      Like

  3. This is great. I think we can all relate, if not with Tony Fernández memories specifically, but with how looking at our own collections sparks personal recollections of players who may not have been (inter)national stars but were a big deal to our favorite teams.

    Like

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