Tony Fernandez covered the infield like a water skeeter chasing bugs atop a pond. Gangly yet graceful, the infielder scuttled after ground balls, which would then be thrown accurately with a flick of the wrist. He was a joy to watch on the field, unless you were the batter.
The shortstop was beloved by fans, especially in Toronto, where he was a keystone player in the late 1980s and a contributor to a World Series championship in 1993.
Mr. Fernandez, who died on Saturday at 57, was reported to have suffered a stroke. Earlier this year, he was hospitalized in Florida for complications from kidney disease and placed in an induced coma. He was also diagnosed with pneumonia.
News of his death brought an outpouring of tributes on Twitter from fans and former Toronto Blue Jays teammates.
“He made everyone around him better,” said the pitcher Todd Stottlemyre. The left-handed David (Boomer) Wells wrote that it was a pitcher’s dream to have Mr. Fernandez at shortstop. Dan Plesac called him a “kind, gentle giant of a man.”
A slashing hitter who was also capable of delivering a slap bunt to confound an opposing infield, Mr. Fernandez recorded five runs batted-in in a wild, 15-14 victory in Game 4 of the 1993 World Series.
He was more often celebrated for his fielding prowess, winning four consecutive Gold Gloves as the American League’s best fielding shortstop. “He makes the spectacular commonplace,” teammate Garth Iorg once said. Mr. Fernandez was so good a player that his acquisition by the New York Yankees in 1995 delayed the ascension of a top prospect named Derek Jeter.
Mr. Fernandez enjoyed a 17-season major-league career. He played in the post-season for three different teams and won his only World Series championship with the Blue Jays, the team that originally signed the impoverished teenaged amateur from the Dominican Republic.
Tall and lean at six-foot-two, 165 pounds, his face scarred from boyhood acne, Mr. Fernandez combatted stereotypes in all his baseball stops. Some reporters, unwilling to acknowledge he was being asked to field provocative questions in a second language, thought him sullen or diffident.
Though lacking a formal education, he was a wise analyst of what it meant to play professional sports in a foreign land in a foreign language where his ethnicity meant something different than it did back at home.
“Latin players have been misunderstood, made out to be moody, hostile, lazy, erratic,” Fernandez said in 1992. “We are an emotional people. But we are honest and sincere, and the difficulty of the change in cultures has just never ever been fully accepted and appreciated. Of course it all still hurts. But not as much as it used to.”
Octavio Antonio Fernandez Castro was born in San Pedro de Macoris, on June 30, 1962, to the former Andrea Castro and Jose Fernando, a man of Haitian descent who took as his surname Fernandez. The baby’s hairless head was so outsized that his father dubbed him El Cabeza (The Head), a nickname decades later used for his Twitter handle of @TonyCabezaFdez. His father supported as best he could a family of 11 children (seven boys, four girls) as a cane cutter in the sugar fields.
The family lived just beyond the right-field fence of Estadio Tetelo Vargas, named for a star of Negro League and Caribbean baseball. The surrounding Barrio Restauracíon was a tough district of dirt roads with single-story shacks and shanties covered by tin roofs and lacking running water.
Like most of the other boys in the neighbourhood, Fernandez spent his free time around the park, which was home to the Estrellas Orientales (Eastern Stars). He was among the urchins who would climb trees for a better unpaid view of a game, scrambling down to pursue any ball hit in their direction. The boys played pelota with whatever was at hand – broken broom handle, rolled-up socks covered in tape, the occasional stray baseball. Sometimes, his mother asked the boy to skip pickup games to push the family’s vegetable cart along the bumpy, dusty streets, a task for which his older brothers were too ashamed.
The boy also scrounged work at the stadium as a bat boy, a groundskeeper and as an all-round labourer, a skinny kid who could be pressed into service loading the team’s bus. He shagged fly balls and chased ground balls with the eagerness of a pup. Early on, he showed soft hands, perhaps because he was too poor to afford a leather glove, instead using scraps of cardboard or a flattened milk carton tied to his left hand. He showed an adroit sense of the game obvious to any learned eye who saw him field on the uneven diamonds of the Dominican.
At the same time, he was hobbled by a bone chip in his right knee. The nagging injury put him on the reject list for scouts and bird dogs as damaged goods. His mother pestered a doctor in the capital who, after also being pressured and likely paid by one persistent scout, operated on the boy’s knee. The family was so poor the boy shared a hospital bed with another lad as he recuperated for six weeks.
Two years later, his legs still not at full strength, the still-growing teenager – as lean as a stalk of sugar cane at 6-feet, 140 pounds – boarded a bus to the capital for a tryout in front of the scout. Epifanio (Epy) Guerrero had since opened an academy for prospects a few miles outside Santo Domingo. By then working for the Blue Jays, Guerrero signed the 17-year-old Fernandez, who had been a student at Gaston Fernando de Ligne high school, on April 24, 1979. Only after the money for his signing bonus arrived and the boy dumped a large pile of pesos on his mother’s bed did she fully appreciate baseball was a profession and not just a pastime.
After nearly four full seasons in the minors, he made his major-league debut with the Blue Jays as a pinch-runner in a game against the Detroit Tigers at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto on Sept. 2, 1983.
Toronto management was grooming the rookie as a replacement at short for Alfredo Griffin, a fellow Dominican and a stellar fielder himself who would be traded to Oakland after the 1984 season.
The seven-year-old Blue Jays franchise enjoyed its first winning season in 1983. The new shortstop would be a key figure as the team contended through the rest of the decade with starters Dave Stieb and Jimmy Key, reliever Tom Henke, catcher Ernie Whitt, and an outfield of Lloyd Moseby, Jesse Barfield and Jorge (George) Bell, yet another superb Dominican to be imported to Canada from Hispaniola.
The lineup would make the post-season in 1985 (losing the American League Championship Series to the Kansas City Royals in seven games) and 1989 (losing the ALCS to the Oakland A’s in five games).
In a famous video clip, the Jays qualified for the 1985 playoffs when Mr. Bell caught a routine fly in left field before dropping to his knees with his arms punching the air in jubilation. He is then embraced by Mr. Fernandez, who raced out from his shortstop position to join in the celebration.
The infamous Blue Jays’ swoon of 1987, during which they lost the final seven games of the season to be passed in the standings by the Tigers, was explained in part by an injury to the shortstop, who suffered a fractured olecranon bone at the tip of the elbow of his throwing arm when Bill Madlock of the Tigers knocked him down in a slide at second base in the third inning of a game on Sept. 24.
In 1986, Fernandez recorded 213 hits, the first Blue Jay to pass the 200-hit marker. That season he played in the first of five career All-Star Games (four with Toronto, one with the San Diego Padres) and won his first of the four consecutive Gold Gloves.
In 1989, he would commit just six errors in 741 chances for a .992 fielding average.
After the 1990 season, during which he hit a league-leading 17 triples, Fernandez was part of a blockbuster trade when he was dispatched with slugging first baseman Fred (Crime Dog) McGriff to San Diego for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter.
Mr. Fernandez played two seasons for the Padres before being traded to the New York Mets. After just 48 games, he was traded back to the Blue Jays, who by then were defending world champions. When they repeated by defeating the Philadelphia Phillies in six games in the World Series, the returned shortstop banged out eight hits (seven singles and a double) in 24 at-bats. He also knocked in nine runs in the series.
As a free agent, he signed with the Cincinnati Reds for 1994, before joining the Yankees the following season. He missed the 1996 season as he recovered from a fractured right elbow when diving for a ground ball in spring training. He later signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Indians, returning to the post-season in 1997. His solo home run in the top of the 11th inning off Baltimore’s fireball-throwing Armando Benitez, a fellow Dominican, won the American League pennant for Cleveland.
The shortstop’s contribution to World Series lore came on a fielding error – of all things – in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 7. With a runner on first and one out, Craig Counsell of the Florida Marlins hit a potential inning-ending ground ball to Fernandez at second base. As the fielder moved to his left to field the ball, he raised his glove just enough to graze the three-hopper, which rolled slowly into right field. On NBC, the broadcaster Bob Costas shouted: “Fernandez has it go through him!” The runner, Bobby Bonilla, got to third base, only to later be thrown out at the plate by Fernandez on a fielder’s choice on Devon White’s grounder. The Marlins went on to win the World Series on Édgar Rentería’s liner up the middle, which pitcher Charles Nagy nearly snagged.
The rare error overshadowed a stellar performance at the plate, as he touched Marlins pitchers for eight hits in 17 at-bats.
Fernandez, a free agent, once again returned to the Blue Jays for two seasons, much of it at third base. The infielder spent the 2000 season in Japan with the Seibu Lions before joining the Milwaukee Brewers at the start of the 2001 season. He was released after 28 games and the Blue Jays yet again picked him up and he saw action in 48 games before retiring as a player.
In 17 seasons, the infielder batted .288 with 2,276 hits, including 92 triples and 94 home runs. In 11 World Series games, he hit .395 with 13 runs batted in.
He holds several Blue Jays club records, including hits (1,583), triples (72), and games played (1,450).
Mr. Fernandez was added to the Level of Excellence display at the Rogers Centre in Toronto in 2001. In 2007, he was inducted into the Pabellón de la Fama de Deporte Dominicana (Dominican Sports Hall of Fame) in Santo Domingo. The following year, he was named to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame at St. Marys, Ontario.
Over the years, his dedication to a stretching regiment and a willingness to try all manner of exercise gizmo earned him the locker-room nickname of Mr. Gadget.
As a devout Christian, he eschewed the late-night revelry others thought helped a team bond. Raised in a church-going household, Fernandez professed to be born again at a clubhouse chapel service at Fenway Park in Boston in 1984. “They think because I take things easy, I don’t care about baseball any more,” he said a year after his revelation. “They take it all wrong. I am a better player because I am playing now for the glorification of God.” Mr. Fernandez became an ordained Pentecostal minister in 2003.
The former player spent three years, from 2012 to 2014, as a special assistant to Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels.
In 2017, he announced he had been hospitalized suffering from polycystic kidney disease.
He and his wife Clara, who survives him, operated the Tony Fernandez Foundation, a charitable organization to help underprivileged youth in his homeland. The non-profit foundation has offices in Canada, the United States and the Dominican Republic. The foundation has an ambitious plan to build a stadium, schools, a convention centre, an orphanage, gymnasium, trade school, teen dorms, hotel and a restaurant on a 500-acre spread outside San Pedro.
The couple’s first of five children, Joel, was born in 1985. He was followed by Jonathan, Abraham, Andres, and Jasmine. The first two boys and the first daughter were given names beginning with the letter J in homage to the Jays. A full list of survivors was unavailable.