A longtime fan favourite of the Blue Jays, shortstop and defensive wizard Tony Fernandez returned to Toronto as a free agent in 2001 after being released by the Milwaukee Brewers. Fernandez had a storied career and was still a capable ballplayer – albeit in a reserve role – in this his fourth stint with the Toronto organization. Following his return to the Blue Jays, Fernandez had announced it would be his final season and he wished to retire as a Blue Jay.
For those who never had a chance to see Tony play in his prime, here is just a little taste of the magic he brought day-in, day-out:
Prior to a home series against the New York Yankees, the Blue Jays announced that September 4, 2001 would be “Tony Fernandez Day,” a day in which the team would pay tribute to Fernandez’s career throughout the game. I remember watching the game, assuming Tony would be the starting shortstop so he could fully bask in the much-deserved fan adoration. But that was not the case.
Pitching for the Blue Jays was Chris Carpenter, a workhorse who was beginning to show glimpses of his future Cy-Young-form. Countering for the Yankees was Andy Pettitte. The starting shortstop for the Blue Jays was Alex Gonzalez. Tony Fernandez was firmly planted to the bench.
Much to my delight, the Blue Jays opened the floodgates early. Andy Pettitte was knocked out of the game after after only three innings while allowing six earned runs. His replacement, future Blue Jay (and John Gibbons antagonist Ted Lilly), didn’t fare much better. In the 7th inning, with the Jays leading 9-0, Cesar Izturis led off with a single. Pinch-hitting Chris Latham (remember him?) hit a single to right field. Alex Gonzalez followed up with a walk to load the bases for Shannon Stewart. But wait! Someone other than Shannon Stewart was strolling to the on-deck circle. Then-manager Buck Martinez motioned for a pinch hitter, and it was none other than Tony Fernandez!
With the bases loaded and one out, Tony stepped into the batter’s box. 20,036 fans rose to their feet for a standing ovation. Facing a 3-2 count, Fernandez deposited a Ted Lilly fastball into the right field seats for a grand slam home run. It was the second pinch-hit grand slam in Blue Jays history, and the third slam of Fernandez’s career. It was the final home run of his career.
“For a guy that’s not a home run hitter, it’s a big thrill,” said Fernandez, who has 94 home runs in 20 major league seasons.
“It means a lot. I wish it would have been my last one, the last day of the season.”
It was a magical baseball moment for one of Toronto’s most loved players.
Not only did Fernandez thrill the fans with his bat, but Chris Carpenter absolutely dominated the Yankees. Carpenter finished with a complete game shutout with, 12 strikeouts (including five in a row), with no walks and only six hits allowed. Larry Millson of the Globe & Mail provides a recap of the game.
Fernandez is the best defensive shortstop I’ve ever seen play live, and he was a great role model to have growing up as a Blue Jays fan. Today, Fernandez works with underprivileged and troubled children by nurturing and developing them through counseling, education, training, physical, and spiritual activities. Not only was he a great ballplayer, he’s an even better man. My thoughts are with him, his family, and I wish him a speedy recovery.
Featured image photo credit: Aaron Harris/Canadian Press