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 70s and 80s) 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
Attending church each Sunday was a "must" in Tonys 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 fathers 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 Tonys
life. "In my mothers opinion you could not be a professional ballplayer and a
Christian," he says. "The two lifestyles didnt 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 didnt 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 couldnt "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
He had actually broken his wrist in August but kept playing, not realizing how
seriously he was hurt. It wasnt until he returned to the Dominican Republic to play
winter ball that he discovered he had a hairline fracture that wasnt healing.
When he arrived for spring training in 1984 Fernandez wasnt 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 Valentines Day. Not only was there a ring on Tonys
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, `Whats 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
"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
wasnt 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 wasnt 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 didnt 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
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 Im ready to accept Christ. He
said, `Do you think youre 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
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 hasnt 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
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 didnt know how to deal with it at first," Fernandez admits. But he
came to realize that "the Lord doesnt promise we will go through the world
without problems. We have to be ready for them. I was accused of many things, but I
dont 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 Christians life shouldnt 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
dont do on the field, or what people think. If I keep this in perspective, then
Ill have no trouble. If I keep my eyes on Jesus, then Im 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
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 dont 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 Tonys
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 wasnt 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 its just a game. If you do
your best, thats all you can do. If the outcome is different than what you expected,
you cant change that. You have to always be ready to accept the good and the
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 wont be shaken ? it
doesnt matter how hard the wind blows or the rain falls."
"But if your life is based on earthly success, then when you have disaster
youre 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.