GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- His time in Cleveland was brief, but Tony Fernandez will forever be remembered by Indians fans as the man who sent their favorite team to the 1997 World Series. Just more than 22 years later, the former infielder died after suffering a stroke while battling kidney issues
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- His time in Cleveland was brief, but Tony Fernandez will forever be remembered by Indians fans as the man who sent their favorite team to the 1997 World Series. Just more than 22 years later, the former infielder died after suffering a stroke while battling kidney issues at the age of 57.
It was Oct. 15, and the Indians were in extra innings against the Orioles in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. Fernandez wasn’t supposed to be in the lineup, but second baseman Bip Roberts took a ground ball -- that was hit by Fernandez -- off his thumb during batting practice, which caused Fernandez to get penciled into the lineup. Fast forward to the 11th inning, and Fernandez stepped to the plate with no outs and nobody on. He cracked his first and only postseason home run to advance the Tribe to the World Series.
“Tony came in and hit the home run to win that game to put us in the World Series,” then-teammate and now Indians first-base/catchers coach Sandy Alomar said. “He had a lot of magical moments for us. Also, against the Yankees, he got some key hits in the Division Series. He was a pleasure to be around, a great teacher. He was very religious, so he was very mentally strong. He helped the young guys a lot. He helped a lot of the young guys.”
Alomar had no idea that Fernandez had been battling kidney issues, and he was shocked to hear the news of his death when he came to the Indians' training facility Sunday morning.
“It’s sad news,” Alomar said. “I played with him. He was such a great teammate. I didn’t realize he was sick. There wasn’t enough news out there. I saw that Candy Maldonado posted something, that [Fernandez] was getting stable or better, and then all of a sudden, he passed away.”
Fernandez was a member of the Tribe only for the ’97 season, but he put together an impressive 17-year career, slashing .288/.347/.399 with 2,276 hits, 844 RBIs, four American League Gold Glove Awards and five All-Star Game selections. He spent 12 years with the Blue Jays, two with the Padres and one each with the Mets, Indians, Reds, Yankees and Brewers.
“In Toronto, he was the man,” Alomar said. “He got traded to San Diego for my brother in that big trade with Joe Carter and Robbie Alomar for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez. When he came to [Cleveland], it was a pleasure playing with him. He was a great teammate and a fantastic baseball player. I think he was underrated. He had, like, 2,200 hits. He was a pretty good player.”
Easing Pérez in
Roberto Pérez played through bone spurs in his ankle last season and underwent surgery in October to get them removed. Although Pérez has been cleared to do all baseball activities, Indians manager Terry Francona said the plan is to ease him into Spring Training games. It’s likely the backstop will skip the first week of games before he starts to get back into the mix.
“We want to make sure that maybe for the first week that whatever we ask him to do, he knows what direction he’s going,” Francona said. “It just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to throw him in a game the first game of the year. So, we’ll go completely off of [him] and the trainers on when he starts to play.”
Francona has been thankful that he has had a great catching group to work with over the past first years, but his excitement might be even higher for the '20 duo. With Pérez returning as the starter after his AL Gold Glove Award-winning season in '19, the Indians traded for backup catcher Sandy León over the offseason, which Francona thinks will make his club even stronger.
“I remember reading, I think it was last year, where [Leon] was in Triple-A and the Red Sox pitchers were like, ‘Hey, we really need this guy here in the big leagues,’” Francona said. “He’s a good pro and defensively, he cares so much about running the game, things that we care about, and he can catch and throw, but he’s also very intelligent and very conscientious. Him and Berto, we’re gonna be -- I felt that way for a while that we’ve been pretty fortunate, but I felt the same way this year.”
Mandy Bell covers the Indians for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MandyBell02.