World Serios Error

Fernandez knows how to cope with a major league mistake

Tony Fernandez has never stood taller than he did when responding to the aftermath of his World Series error by Gwen Diaz

On a steamy October night in Miami, with Game 7 of the 1997 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Florida Marlins knotted at two runs apiece in the 11th inning, Craig Counsell hit a slow ground ball to Tony Fernandez at second base. In his haste to turn a routine double play, Fernandez missed the ball and watched it roll lazily into the outfield ? setting up the go-ahead run and a 3-2 Marlins victory over his Indians.

Although Fernandez’ list of accomplishments is long ? earning a World Series ring (1993), appearing in four All-Star games and winning four Gold Glove awards (1986-1989), holding the major league record for career fielding percentage by a shortstop, (.980) as well as the Toronto Blue Jays all-time record for most triples (70) ? it was that championship-killing error on the night of October 26, 1997, that has given Tony Fernandez what may be the best platform he has ever had to talk about his faith in Jesus Christ.

It all started for Tony Fernandez (one of 11 children born to the wife of the pastor of a small Baptist church) in a tiny house behind a professional ballpark in San Pedro de Macoris, a city in the Dominican Republic. Growing up just a foul ball away from the action gave young Fernandez a jump on the game he would join as a professional when he was just 17 years old.

As a youngster, Tony faithfully attended school, then hurried home every day. He dropped off his books on the kitchen table and headed to the ballpark, hopping the small fence that separated his house from his own personal "field of dreams." There he shagged balls every afternoon until the last player left or the demands of his mother brought him home to complete his family chores.

Tony grew up playing among professional ballplayers, borrowing the gloves of Ray Knight (former Reds manager) or Larry Milboune (infielder with Houston, Seattle, and the Yankees in the 70’s and 80’s) or any number of other pros who played winter ball in the Dominican. He became their "apprentice," helping them polish their shoes, watching them bone their bats, learning to catch fly balls in the sun or snag grounders on the run. The big guys encouraged him, telling him that if he developed physically he had a good chance of becoming a major league ballplayer himself. Six days a week he lived at the ballpark.

Attending church each Sunday was a "must" in Tony’s life. "It was go to church or get a spanking," he says with a laugh. So for many years he attended the services at his father’s church out of duty. But most Sundays found the ballpark behind his home buzzing with activity as the professional teams prepared for and played their league games. Church and baseball did not seem destined to coexist in Tony’s life. "In my mother’s opinion you could not be a professional ballplayer and a Christian," he says. "The two lifestyles didn’t fit together to most people in my country."

The attraction of baseball was intense. "I prayed to God, `You make me either a preacher or a ballplayer,’" Tony recalls, hoping somehow God would personally and dramatically intervene in the controversy.

At one point, the lure of a professional life playing ball became too strong to resist. Tony seemingly abandoned his faith and quit going to church, opting instead to play at the ballyard. "I took a few spankings," he admits. "My father said, `Just let him play ball,’ but my mother didn’t believe in that. She wanted me to go to church no matter what."

Fernandez’ baseball skills did not go unnoticed. He had become an aggressive hitter (he knew he couldn’t "walk" his way off the island), and he had a great glove. A beckon from the Toronto Blue Jays organization on April 24, 1979, after he had just completed his junior year at Gasto Fernando High School, made the controversial decision between church and baseball an easy one for Tony. He left behind his home, with its ballpark convenience; his school, with the continuing controversy over church and baseball ? and headed for Class-A ball in the Carolina League with a free-agent contract in one hand and a glove on the other.

Although he disagreed with his mother about the role of baseball in his life, Tony never stopped wanting to please her and his dad, and he always wanted to please the God they served. So he lived a very strict life during his minor league years, devoting himself to working hard at his God-given skills. Although injuries plagued the young Dominican ballplayer from the very beginning, he worked his way to the majors as a shortstop by the end of 1983, making his major league debut against Detroit on September 2.

He had actually broken his wrist in August but kept playing, not realizing how seriously he was hurt. It wasn’t until he returned to the Dominican Republic to play winter ball that he discovered he had a hairline fracture that wasn’t healing.

When he arrived for spring training in 1984 Fernandez wasn’t the same man who left baseball in the fall. First, he was married. He and Clara, whom he met in the Dominican Republic, exchanged vows on Valentine’s Day. Not only was there a ring on Tony’s left hand, but there was also a cast. He missed most of spring training waiting for the bone to heal.

"I was very sad because that was my chance to establish myself," he says.

At about the same time, Fernandez began to feel that he was missing something more than just baseball in his life ? something not even baseball or a brand-new marriage to Clara could ever fill.

"I reached my childhood dream when I was called up to the big leagues," Tony says. But the fulfillment of his dream did not bring satisfaction. "There was nothing there. God had made me a ballplayer as I had asked Him to earlier. When I reached that level and found I was still empty, I asked, `What’s going on? This is not what I thought it would be.’ I was happy to make it to the majors, but it was not what I was looking for. There was still something missing. At that point I realized I needed something bigger.

"I thank God for my parents and what they did and what they taught me early in my life. I always had a respect for God. I had a great foundation for my life, but it wasn’t until 1984, after I broke my wrist, that I understood how to have a personal relationship with Him. People always talk about religion, but I found out that religion is man-made. What God wants is a relationship.

"Jesse Barfield and Roy Lee Jackson were on the team at the time, and I remember Jesse telling me, `You know, Jesus loves you and He wants to bless you more than He already has.’ And I said, `I know ? I grew up in a Christian home.’ I thought having Christian parents was an automatic ticket to heaven."

"Jesse kept witnessing to me, but I thought I knew all about God. I went down to Triple A for a month for a rehab program after spring training. The Blue Jays called me back up after about 5 weeks, but I wasn’t playing much. I was disappointed."

Soon, though Fernandez would begin to discover the answer. It began with one play. His life, like many good baseball games, turned on one play. "We were playing in Boston on June 24, 1984. It was a Saturday game, and I made a beautiful play in the hole. Everyone was commenting on the play, but the manager didn’t say anything good ? something I would like to hear; some approval or some encouragement. I was a rookie. I wanted to hear something positive. When asked (about the play) by the media, the manager just said (the play) was routine. He was used to it. I guess I was looking for glory."

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After reading the write-up in the Sunday paper the next day, Tony discussed the situation with a childhood friend from the Dominican Republic. He told him, "I need something better in my life."

That day, after the Baseball Chapel service, Fernandez decided it was time to give his life to Jesus. "I remember walking out of the chapel, across the locker room, and I called to Jesse. I said, `Jesse, hey, I think I’m ready to accept Christ.’ He said, `Do you think you’re really ready?’ Then he looked me straight in the eyes and said, `I think you are,’ and he called Roy Lee Jackson and the other ones (from the chapel service). I remember that right at that moment I gave my life to Jesus."

Clara had also accepted Christ the night before while meeting with Marla Barfield and Mary Jackson. "It was a blessing for me," Tony says about hearing from Clara that she had become a believer. "I was excited to hear it, and I think it was a boost for me to accept Christ.

"Ever since, I have been trying to please God in every way in my work," says Fernandez.

Over the past 13 major league seasons, Fernandez has received many honors, suffered several injuries, endured at least half a dozen trades ? including stints with the Padres, the Mets, the Reds, the Yankees, and Blue Jays (several times) ? and adjusted to position changes from shortstop to third base, then to second. It hasn’t always been easy. His faith has been tested.

The New York media was particularly tough on Fernandez when he played for the Mets (1992-93), questioning both his motivation and his effort. In reality he was suffering from kidney stones and was playing in great pain.

Less than a year later, he was overlooked during contract negotiations after being traded to the Blue Jays and contributing significantly to their 1993 World Series championship. He explains the problem as a misunderstanding between his agent and the Toronto organization.

Then, after being picked up by the Reds (1994) and traded to the Yankees (1995), he missed the entire 1996 season with a broken right elbow.

"I didn’t know how to deal with it at first," Fernandez admits. But he came to realize that "the Lord doesn’t promise we will go through the world without problems. We have to be ready for them. I was accused of many things, but I don’t believe in answering back to people through the media. I try to let my work do the talking and wait for God to give me a chance to shine. People will always say bad things, but I have to remember, they accused Jesus too."

The veteran infielder feels that God has been teaching him many lessons. "I had to learn that a Christian’s life shouldn’t change. Whether I do good or do bad, Jesus still loves me the same. My faith and salvation is not based on what I do or don’t do on the field, or what people think. If I keep this in perspective, then I’ll have no trouble. If I keep my eyes on Jesus, then I’m in good shape."

The 1997 postseason proved that Tony had learned these lessons well. He became the hero of the American League Championship Series with a game-winning home run in Game 6 to clinch the American League pennant for the Indians.

During the World Series, his glove (at second base) and his bat (.471 for the Series) kept the Indians’ championship hopes alive, taking them into Game 7 against the Marlins.

Fernandez continued his postseason prowess in Game 7 when he hit a third-inning single that drove in two runs to put the Indians on top. But then came that fateful eleventh inning ? and the error that crushed the championship dreams of the Cleveland Indians.

"I don’t want to make any excuses," Fernandez told reporters after the game, "I am prepared for anything in life. Things like this happen for a reason." This time the press was impressed with what they called the "deeply religious" baseball player from the Dominican Republic. They commented on Tony’s dignity and patience as he answered the questions from the myriad of reporters who swarmed around him. They defended his skill and his tremendous contribution to the Indians run for the world championship title.

Fernandez admits that dealing with the error and the loss wasn’t easy, though. "It was particularly hard on my five children," he says. "One son was crying to me after the game, and I told him to remember it’s just a game. If you do your best, that’s all you can do. If the outcome is different than what you expected, you can’t change that. You have to always be ready to accept the good and the bad."

For Fernandez, a favorite Bible passage explains how he was able to deal with the situation with such grace. "Jesus says (in Matthew 7:24-27) that when disaster strikes, if your life is founded on the Rock (Jesus Christ) it won’t be shaken ? it doesn’t matter how hard the wind blows or the rain falls."

"But if your life is based on earthly success, then when you have disaster you’re in trouble. That is why I was able to handle it very, very effectively. I think God gave me this platform to glorify Him. My main purpose on this earth is to serve Him no matter what, and be obedient to His calling."

Reprinted by permission, Sports Spectrum. Gwen Diaz is a freelance writer who lives in Lakeland, Florida.