The Day Tony Came Home

Note: this story was inspired by the 1993 Jays In Real Time twitter feed.  If you’re not following that, you’re missing out.

Let’s start with a proclamation: my earliest baseball memory is from 1985.  Somewhere in the deep, dark, and dusty recesses of my brain I can still pull up the clip of the Blue Jays winning the AL East for the first time, George Bell sinking to his knees after securing the final out in shallow left field.  The first person to greet Bell and start the celebration?  Tony Fernandez.

From that day forward Tony has had a special place in my heart.  He was long and lean, I was long and lean.  He played shortstop, I played shortstop.  I remember trying to emulate (quite poorly) his underhanded flip throw across the diamond.  I remember trying to emulate (even more poorly) his batting stance, the way the bat seemingly just floated in his limp wrists before exploding through the zone.

So you can imagine my horror on December 5, 1990 when Toronto packaged Tony along with Fred McGriff – who just so happened to be my second favourite player – to San Diego for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar.  The franchise-altering trade obviously worked out incredibly well for the Blue Jays and I quickly forgave Pat Gillick for sending my hero out of town, but I never forgot the way Fernandez looked with the Blue Jay on his chest.

Luckily I wouldn’t have to.

This past Monday – June 11 – marked the 25th anniversary of one of the happiest days of my life as a Blue Jays fan.  On that day in 1993, chasing their second straight World Series title but with a group of shortstops decimated by injury, Pat Gillick re-acquired Tony Fernandez from the New York Mets for Darrin Jackson.  In hindsight I remember this being a great and highly celebrated deal for the Jays, but my hindsight has clearly been compromised.  In reality the homecoming was viewed by many (or most) as a negative.

Darrin Jackson was acquired on the eve of the ’93 season and came with high expectations.  Sick of Derek Bell’s perceived lack of effort the Jays shipped him to San Diego, hoping that Jackson, coming off consecutive 4.4 WAR seasons, could take over the left field role left open after the departure of Candy Maldonado.  But in 46 games he only hit .216 with a .597 OPS for the Blue Jays (-0.9 WAR), so fans weren’t surprised when he was jettisoned.  What was surprising was who came back in return.

While Toronto’s left fielders and shortstops struggled that season, the starting pitching gave cause for the greatest concern, with fans clamoring for an upgrade in the rotation.  So when news broke that it was Fernandez, and not a starter, that was coming back, except for one single 14-year old kid who cheered, there was a collective “huh?” from the faithful.

And why not?  Fernandez was terrible, a shell of his former self.  He was 30-years old, batting a measly .225, and had become a liability in the field.  Even more, he was seemingly always hurt, struggling through thumb problems and then kidney stones.  Dave Perkins of the Toronto Star ridiculed the move, calling Fernandez “Mr. Migraine”.

As we know now, he was proven to be incredibly wrong.

I remember watching Tony’s first game back.  I don’t have any recollection of the game itself (a good thing, as the Jays lost 12-1 in Detroit), but I remember Tony stepping into the lineup with a single and a triple.  I remember seeing his smile as he stood on third base, happy to be back in familiar surroundings.

Fernandez took off in Toronto.  In his first three games he went 7-for-14 with a home run, three doubles, a triple, a steal, and 7 RBI.  After his first 25 games, he had raised his season average 45 points to .270 and his season OPS a whopping 128 points to .746.  He cemented his return by hitting .326 in the playoffs and setting a record for World Series RBI by a shortstop with 9.

Tony, of course, would leave Toronto after the season and bounce around the league before returning on two more occasions.  He has been retired since 2001 yet still holds Toronto’s franchise records for WAR, Defensive WAR, Games Played, Hits, and Triples.  His name hangs on the Rogers Centre Level of Excellence, and more importantly on the back of my powder blue Jays jersey.

Everybody has their major sporting moments that they remember forever.  For my dad it was Canada winning the 1972 Summit Series.  I have lived through the ’92 and ’93 World Series, the Bat Flip, the Donaldson Dash, and Olympic hockey golds in ’02, ’10, and ’14.  While those moments will remain the gold standard (until the Blue Jays win it all again), sometimes it’s the smaller stuff that matters more, those moments that mean more to you than to anybody else.

For me, that remains a Friday in 1993 when my favourite player of all time came home.

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