Where do I even start?
Back in October of ’85, when he was the first to meet a kneeling George Bell in left field, Toronto’s first AL East title finally secured?
Maybe October of ’89, his 2-run double in the fourth inning giving the Blue Jays the lead in the first playoff game ever hosted at SkyDome, a game doubling as my first ever in-person playoff game.
Or there was the devastating moment, that feeling of anger, frustration, and sadness in December of 1990 when he was packaged with Fred McGriff and sent to San Diego for Alomar and Carter. Or the feeling of pure elation when Mike Timlin fielded that bunt to finally crown the Jays World Series Champions, yet elation mixed with a tinge of regret knowing that he wasn’t a part of the celebration.
How about June 1993 and his triumphant return to Toronto, reclaiming his natural spot at short in the Dome’s infield? Or his sensational 5-RBI night in Game 4 of the World Series that put the Jays on the precipice of a repeat? Or the sight of him helping Joe Carter to his feet after the home run hero emerged from a dog pile at home plate?
All are worthy memories. All hold a special plate in my heart.
But when Octavio Antonio Fernandez, better known as Tony to a legion of Jays fans in the 1980’s, sadly passed away last weekend at the age of 57, none of those came to mind first.
I have spent countless hours these past few days reading tribute after tribute to Tony, and all share one common thread: his inspiration of an entire generation of Canadian baseball youth. Indeed, that is exactly where my mind went when I heard the sad news: my 8-year old self, feet firmly planted at shortstop on my house league team. Fielding grounders (mostly clean!) and trying with all my might to fire the ball underhand to first, that famous Tony-esque delivery that looked so easy but was anything but.
I was by no means a natural athlete as a kid. I was skinny, had zero power, couldn’t run fast, had very little arm strength. But I was a massive Jays fan, and seeing Tony play the game inspired me that maybe, just maybe, I could play it as well. He was skinny; he looked nothing like those behemoth sluggers who ruled the late ’80’s (the McGwire’s and Canseco’s). But man could he glide in the field. He was easily the most gifted, most natural, most awe-inspiring defender I had (or have) ever seen.
That 1989 Blue Jays team went on a crazy run in the second half of the season to catch and then surpass the Orioles and win the division. That winter, a commemorative video titled “Sky High: The Story of the 1989 Toronto Blue Jays” was released on VHS, and to say I wore that tape out would be an understatement. There is a clip in the video that focuses on Tony and his fielding ability, one that produces one of my most memorable baseball quotes of all time: “I like to field ground balls.”
It’s a simple six-word sentence, but one that always perfectly captured Tony Fernandez. He exuded nothing but pure joy when he played the game of baseball.
His tenure with the Blue Jays almost perfectly aligned with my devotion to the team when I was younger. I was a massive fan from my first baseball memories in ’85 through the 1993 World Series triumph. My interest started to wane a bit in 1994 and 1995 but it wasn’t the players strike or the Blue Jays struggles that were to blame. No, it was the fact that Tony was no longer there, no longer patrolling the infield and delivering timely hits. Instead he was wandering the baseball wilderness, and although he did have some success in Cincinnati, New York, and Cleveland, it wasn’t until his return in 1998 that my attention was captured once again. I’ll never forget a 37-year old Fernandez in 1999 making one of the most unlikely assaults on .400 in baseball history, still sitting with an average above that magical mark near the end of June. It was the perfect culmination of his career, one last out-of-nowhere All-Star appearance.
As corny as it sounds, I feel like I owe my love for the game to Tony. He has always been and (will always be) my favourite player. I own several Jays jerseys, but only one has a name and number: a powder blue #1 Fernandez shirt. I have only one sports autograph – a photo signed by Tony himself. His smiling, celebrating face has been my Twitter avatar for a decade.
At 57 he’s gone way too soon. But in the short time he was here he left an indelible mark on so many, myself included.
And though I never made the majors (missed out by just a little bit – my .240 average in Whitby house league didn’t quite make the cut), every game of catch I play to this day still starts and ends with a few Tony flips.
And always will.