The lasting legacy of Tony Fernández

I’ve written extensively about the fact that the Hall of Fame is an organization that, by definition, is exclusionary. It’s exclusionary not only in that it de facto chooses the best and excludes everyone else, but that the qualifications have progressively gotten more exclusionary. While the players of the 1920s likely saw a handful of Hall of Famers per team, you’d be lucky to see just a couple if you watched an entire season’s worth of games today.

That doesn’t mean that the answer is to induct everyone, but as I’ve said, extensive consideration should be given to pretty much every player who accumulated more than 40 WAR or played for 15 years. Players that good embody an era even if they aren’t inner circle; along with them come over a decade of history.

No player embodies that more for the early 1990s than Tony Fernández, who passed away last night due to complications from kidney disease. Fernández was just 57 years-old, incredibly young for anyone to pass, and even sadder is that it requires tragedy to recognize what a titan he was for both the Blue Jays as an organization and baseball writ large.

Fernández was born on June 30, 1962 in San Pedro de Macorís, Dominican Republic. At the age of just 17 he was scouted by Epy Guerrero, famed Blue Jays scout who signed not only Fernández in 1979, but the likes of Carlos Delgado, Freddy Garcia, José Mesa, Luis Sojo, Kelvim Escobar, and many, many others.

Fernández spent almost his entire 20s with the Jays, putting up nearly 30 WAR in that time, and was ultimately traded to the Padres in 1990 in the famed deal that sent him and Fred McGriff to San Diego, and Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter back to Toronto. He would come home to win the title with Alomar and Carter, but he was in many ways at the nexus of Jays history at that time.

And he had a historic career for a shortstop. He had more JAWS than Phil Rizzuto and Omar Vizquel, the latter who could very well be inducted to the Hall on very similar, defensive-minded merits. Rizzuto has the Yankees pedigree during a dynasty, but Fernández was part of the iconic 1993 Blue Jays team.

Only four shortstops had more fWAR from 1985 to 1995: Alan Trammell, Barry Larkin, Ozzie Smith, and Cal Ripken, and just four had more Defensive Runs Above Average than Fernández: Greg Gagne, Ozzie Guillen, Smith, and Ripken. Among just the Blue Jays alone, he leads the team all-time in games, position player WAR, and hits.

If we’re the traditional awards types, we would note that the four-straight Gold Gloves and five All-Star’s are impressive in their own right. Jays fans probably remember him most for his unimpeachable performance in Game Four of the 1993 series, when he knocked in five RBIs:

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For Yankees fans like myself, who largely remember him as the shortstop that preceded Derek Jeter, we also remember him for becoming the first Yankees player since Bobby Murcer two and a half decades earlier to hit for the cycle:

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For Cleveland fans, they remember him as part of that memorable 1997 season, when Fernández hit a game-winning home run in Game Six of the ALCS:

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Maybe they remember more for the World Series when his error in Game Seven put the eventual winning run for the Marlins on base, but I think these clips certainly show that the good outweigh the bad. Some great players consistently found themselves in the thick of great teams, and he was one of them.

No plaque will have Tony Fernández’s name, but we can put a mental one up in our heads right now. Fernández was by all accounts one of the 35-50 best shortstops in baseball history, was a part of some of the most important teams of the 1990s. If that isn’t history, I don’t know what is. Rest in peace.

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