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Quite a Catch : Former Northridge Reserve Fernandez Begins Professional Career With Giants

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Danny Fernandez leaves in a few weeks for spring training in Arizona. He has been signed to a professional baseball contract by the San Francisco Giants. George Genovese, the scout who discovered his talents, also has signed such outstanding major league players as George Foster, Bobby Bonds, Jack Clark and Garry Maddox. And Genovese says Fernandez is a can’t-miss, a major league catcher right now who only has to be taught the nuances of smacking big-league pitching.

With that kind of a buildup, you reason Fernandez must be one of those rare athletes who has been mulching pitchers and gunning down runners since Little League, the star of stars throughout his athletic life, the guy who pounded the game-winning home run that lifted his college team to a dramatic victory in the championship games and was carried off the field on the shoulders of worshiping teammates.

Sure. And figure skater Scott Hamilton once played nose tackle for the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

In the past three years, Fernandez has been the star or the hero about as often as Manute Bol has ridden across the country in the back seat of a Volkswagen.

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It all began normally enough for the future pro baseball player. Little League was a breeze. And at Arroyo High in the Bay Area town of San Lorenzo, he was known as Mr. Fernandez. Team captain, all-league, all-everything. The Man.

A year later, he had a new nickname: Hey, You. As in, “Hey, You, get back there and catch batting practice so our real catcher doesn’t get hurt.”

That was at Chabot Junior College in Hayward, where Mr. High School Star reported for practice and was introduced to Scott Murray, the team’s catcher. Murray, who also has been signed by the Giants, played virtually every inning of every game.

“So they put me in the outfield,” Fernandez said. “I don’t think I had ever even walked through an outfield before. It was bad. I had trouble fielding fly balls. It was just a bad situation for me.”

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He was also playing football at Chabot, but he wanted to play football and baseball. So he transferred to Cal State Northridge, lured south by then-football Coach Tom Keele, who vowed to make the hard-throwing Fernandez his quarterback. But he did not become the starter and once again turned his attention to baseball.

On the first day of practice, he was introduced to another Scott, this one with the last name of McIntyre. This Scott was CSUN’s catcher. McIntyre played virtually every inning of every game.

“When I came out of high school, I wasn’t ready to be anyone’s sub,” Fernandez said. “It ate me up every day. But I went out of my way both at Chabot and at Northridge to help out the team any way I could, to give the appearance that I wasn’t unhappy. Especially at Northridge. Even though I didn’t play.”

In 1986, his first season at CSUN, Fernandez was third on the depth chart, behind McIntyre and Danny Muzzey. He appeared in eight of the Matadors’ 60 games. Last season, his contribution to the team skyrocketed. He appeared in 10 games.

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At that point, the likelihood of Fernandez becoming a professional baseball player was considered about the same as the chances of wrestler Andre the Giant riding Alysheba in the Preakness.

That, however, was before he met Genovese, the San Francisco scout who lives in North Hollywood.

“This kid is a big-league catcher right now,” Genovese said. “Defensively, he could play this season in the major leagues. All he has to do to make it is learn to hit. But George Foster couldn’t hit at this stage of his career, either. I don’t know why Fernandez never played in college.”

The reason, according to Fernandez and his coaches, was football. In the fall, when the baseball team gathered to begin play, Fernandez was wearing shoulder pads and a helmet. By the time football season had ended and he rushed across campus to the baseball field, his teammates were already well into their winter season.

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It happened at Chabot and it happened twice at CSUN. Fernandez could never make the transition from football to baseball.

“Football killed me for baseball,” Fernandez said. “I was so far behind every year. The other guys would be hitting real well, in a groove, and I’d join the team and it was a joke. It was questionable sometimes whether I’d even make contact with the ball. The whole time I was on the baseball team at Northridge, I was rusty.”

His coach at CSUN, Terry Craven, saw the rust.

“He was physically talented enough to play, but when you miss three or four or five months of the season, you’re so far behind it’s impossible to catch up,” Craven said. “The system, the practice habits, the mechanical habits you develop that allow you to get into a groove, Danny just never had time to do any of those things.”

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Fernandez, however, doesn’t regret playing both sports.

“If I had known that I had a chance at a pro baseball career, maybe I would have played just baseball and left football alone,” he said. “But football was always more fun than baseball. Just more exciting. There’s nothing in the world like throwing a touchdown pass. Maybe hitting a home run feels like that, but I haven’t hit one in so many years I don’t remember what that’s like.”

In the spring of last year, after CSUN’s season had ended, Fernandez was looking for a place to play baseball for the summer. Genovese has fielded teams called the Giants’ Rookies in the Valley for more than two decades, giving young men a chance to keep playing while he gets to evaluate new talent. Genovese’s teams, which play every Sunday during the summer and again during the winter, were the discovery grounds for Foster and Bonds and Clark and a dozen more little-known players who went on to shining major league careers.

A CSUN teammate of Fernandez’s, Pierre Rodnunsky, had played on Genovese’s team the previous summer and told Fernandez about it. A phone call to Genovese brought Fernandez a tryout.

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“I went and the very first day George threw me on the other team, the team his team was playing against,” Fernandez said. “I wasn’t sure what he was doing, but I figured it wasn’t good.”

If Fernandez had been introduced that day to the catcher on Genovese’s team and the introduction had begun, “Danny, meet Scott . . . ", well, that would likely have been the end of Fernandez’s career. Luckily, this time there wasn’t a Scott in sight.

“I found out later that George always shifts people back and forth from his team to the opponents’ team,” Fernandez said. “He gets to see more players that way.”

And Genovese liked what he saw.

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“He told me to keep coming out with his team,” Fernandez said. “I was playing on another pickup team during the week and I wasn’t playing very well, but every Sunday when I played for George I had my best game of the week. Every Sunday, with him watching, I played great. After three weeks, he told me he was interested in signing me to a pro contract and that as soon as he got the opportunity, he would.

“It really shocked me.”

The Giants signed Fernandez last July and he spent October and November in an instructional league in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he found out that several months of playing baseball, uninterrupted by football, made quite a difference.

“The first day in Arizona, I remember looking around the field with these real high expectations of everybody being a great player and wondering if I belonged out there,” he said. “I wondered what I had gotten myself into. But after a few days I realized that the other guys were just good athletes who played baseball. Defensively, I knew I was as good as anyone there. And I know my hitting will come around.”

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Fernandez returned from Arizona and rejoined the Giants’ Rookies team, working out or playing in a game every day while holding down one job at a gas station and another, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., working in a private facility with autistic adults.

Despite the busy schedule, Fernandez still finds time each day to dream. He likely will be assigned in March or April to one of the Giants’ Class-A affiliates, either in San Jose or Clinton, Iowa. But his dream is much bigger than either of those cities.

“I grew up about 30 minutes from Candlestick Park and was always a Giants’ fan,” he said. “I think all the time about how ironic it is that I signed a contract with them. They were always my favorite team. Now, I can picture myself in the big leagues. I’m in Candlestick with the Giants, right near my home. My family and friends are all there to watch.”

And in this dream he hits a game-winning home run, right?

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“No, I see myself throwing a guy out at second base,” Fernandez said.

OK, so it’s not a movie-of-the-week-caliber dream. But it is a catcher’s dream. And after a few years of crouching not behind home plate but beside the water cooler in the dugout, it is, remarkably, a dream that could come true.

“He can do it,” Genovese said. “He’s got all the tools. If he can learn to hit major league pitching--and I believe he will--he will catch in the major leagues some day.”


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