Tony Fernandez dies; shortstop played central role in 1980s Tigers-Blue Jays rivalry

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Tony Fernandez, the longtime major-league shortstop who played a central role in the spirited Toronto Blue Jays-Detroit Tigers rivalry in the 1980s, has died. He was 57.

Fernandez died Sunday, of kidney failure. He long had been on a donor list. Reports surfaced Saturday that he he had died, but his family said he still was on life support.

Fernandez played 17 seasons in the majors, 12 with the Blue Jays, who were bitter rivals of the Tigers during the prime of his career.

Tony Fernandez played 17 seasons in the major leagues, including three stints with the Toronto Blue Jays. He is Toronto's career leader in hits.

The rivalry was no more spirited than late in 1987, when the Tigers rallied from 3.5 games back with eight games to go to win the American League East title on the last day of the regular season at Tiger Stadium.

And Fernandez wasn't on the field for those final eight games, having suffered a broken arm when he hit the hard turf at Exhibition Stadium when he was bowled over by sliding Tigers base runner Bill Madlock. The slide was controversial, with the Blue Jays calling it dirty, and the Tigers defending "Mad Dog."

"That was huge. He was a big leader on that ballclub," said Dan Petry, who had a first-hand view of the rivalry as a longtime pitcher for the Tigers and a member of that 1987 team. "Certainly, they had a bunch of good players, but he was one of those ones that was kind of the silent leader. He was a big part.

"That was devastating to them."

Manny Lee took over at shortstop for the Blue Jays, and they won the game of the slide and the two games after that to build the 3.5-game lead.

But Toronto lost its last seven games, including the last three games of the season in Detroit, as the Tigers went on to meet the Twins in the AL Championship Series. It would be Detroit's final trip to the postseason until 2006; the Blue Jays went on to win back-to-back World Series in 1992-93, one of which Fernandez was a part of after being traded back to the organization.

The slide occurred Sept. 24, 1987, in the third inning. Madlock led off the inning with a single, and Kirk Gibson followed with a grounder to second.

Getting the relay throw, Fernandez couldn't get out of the way of Madlock, who slid sideways and hard to break up the double play. He immediately left the game, and had surgery later that day.

Replays still available on YouTube seem to side with the Blue Jays, as Madlock was well away from being able to touch the bag. In today's game, you wouldn't get away with that, as no contact is allowed trying to break up double plays.

"I remember seeing it over and over and over again, and I'm sure we're all bias," Petry said. "It was a hard kind of slide, obviously."

Fernandez came down with his arm hitting the turf, where wooden panels were placed under the astroturf, outlining the dirt cutoff. Fernandez hit the wood.

The Tigers, at the time, blamed the stadium setup for the injury.

"It wasn't a baseball stadium," Alan Trammell said Sunday.

The Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League played there.

The Blue Jays, though, were blaming the Tigers.

"I’m not pleased," Blue Jays manager Jimy Williams said after the game. "It was illegal.”

Madlock, who was acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers that summer and provided a huge spark to the offense, defended himself,

“I can’t believe anyone would question it,” Madlock said afterward, according to old Associated Press reports. “If Pete Rose had come in with one of his blocks, there would be total hysteria. I always thought you raised hell if a runner came in with his spikes high but that it’s part of the game when you try to break up a double play with a slide like that.

"Maybe we should go down there and kiss ‘em next time.”

The Tigers and Blue Jays played some classic games not just in 1987, but also in 1984, when the Tigers, despite getting off to that 35-5 start, started to feel some heat from the Blue Jays that summer.

Fernandez was often in the mix, his 1,583 hits remaining the most in Blue Jays franchise history. He also played the most games, with 1,450.

He was a slick-fielding shortstop, winning four Gold Gloves in mid-1980s, after his contemporary in Detroit, Trammell, won four earlier in the 1980s.

"You know, we had such a big rivalry with them, that we didn't like a lot of the guys, and he was one of them," Petry said, with a laugh. "But it was because of respect.

"It's like when a great ballplayer comes to a stadium and gets booed, that's respect, you know? And that's kind of the way when an opposing team doesn't like you, that's call respect, like, 'Dang, that guy is good.'"

Fernandez also had stops with the San Diego Padres, New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers. He had three stints with the Blue Jays, including hitting .305 his final year, in 2001.

With the Yankees in 1996, he was planning to move from shortstop to second base to make way for a young kid from Kalamazoo named Derek Jeter. Fernandez, their shortstop in 1995, was set to stay on at second as insurance in case Jeter didn't pan out, but an elbow injury ended Fernandez's season, Jeter went on to win AL rookie of the year, and is set to be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer.

Fernandez finished as a .288/.347/.399 hitter with 2,276 hits, 844 RBIs and 246 stolen bases. He made five All-Star teams, and played in five postseasons.

Trammell said he'll remember Fernandez for his stellar defense and his sweet swing, particularly from the left side, where he seemed to emulate Rod Carew.

"A guy that had a very, very good career, and a lot of people don't remember that," Trammell said. "He was darn good there."

Tigers third-base coach Ramon Santiago, a former major-league infielder from the Dominican Republic, grew up idolizing Fernandez.

"He was a guy I really admired coming up," said Santiago, who played 13 years in the majors, including 10 with the Tigers. "I always loved the way he played, the soft hands he had, so fluid. He made the game look so easy and I know it's not that easy. I was always amazed at how easy he made the game look.

"He was a Christian man, too. A great believer in the lord. He was always giving advice to players. He's going to be missed. The year I was with the Blue Jays (2015, 33 games at Triple-A Buffalo), my last year, anytime you came into the clubhouse, everybody talked about how much they loved Tony and how much they idolized him.

"All you ever heard about Tony was great things because that's what he was — he was a great man."

Staff writer Chris McCosky contributed.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984