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Fernandez Welcomes a Fresh Start : Baseball: Shortstop brings impressive offensive and defensive credentials to Padres. He leaves behind his Toronto turmoil.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He held the phone tightly in his hand. He listened, and then he started to shake. Suddenly, it was hard to breathe.

It was last Dec. 5, and Gordon Ash, assistant general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, was on the line.

“I have good news for you,” Tony Fernandez remembers Ash saying. “We just traded you and Freddie (McGriff).”

Who would have ever thought?

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Something you should know: Fernandez’s career average of just one error per 51 chances is the best in baseball history. The best ever .

Something else you should know: Fernandez, who had spent his entire eight-year major league career with the Blue Jays, has the highest lifetime batting average in Toronto history. It’s .289.

And one more thing: Fernandez led the major leagues last year with 17 triples, and his career total of 61 also is best in Toronto history.

Tony, we have good news for you. See ya later, pal.

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“Even though you think you’re prepared for something, you’re not,” Fernandez said. “It took me two or three days to comprehend the situation.”

It was at the winter meetings that Toronto shipped Fernandez and McGriff to San Diego for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter in a trade that rocked the game.

Baseball people around the country gasped at this good, old-fashioned deal. Joe McIlvaine, Padre general manager, looked at his roster and saw he had a surplus of young outfielders, making Carter expendable. Ash and Pat Gillick, Tonronto executive vice-president, looked at their roster and saw that Manny Lee could play shortstop and, soon, a kid named Eddie Zosky would be. Fernandez, they decided, was also expendable. Quite logical, really.

Except that shortstops simply aren’t traded. If Fernandez plays in 100 games this season, he will become just the 10th shortstop in history--and only the sixth since 1940--to play that many games in different leagues in successive seasons.

Fernandez and McGriff. Alomar and Carter. What a package. To this day, many people argue the merits of the deal for each team.

Those people don’t include Padre officials. So far this spring, Fernandez’s new employers are impressed.

“He has great range, that’s the thing I love about him,” McIlvaine said. “He can cover an acre.”

Said Padre Manager Greg Riddoch: “He’s possibly better than I anticipated. He has stretched three singles into doubles this spring when he could have easily settled for singles.

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“One of the greatest leadership tools you have is to lead by example. I think it encourages some of the younger players to play baseball like he does.”

It is a sunny day in Yuma. The man who will deny Garry Templeton his 10th consecutive opening-day start for the Padres is sitting casually on a couch in the lobby of the team hotel. From behind dark sunglasses, he talks of a new beginning.

“I am very sensitive,” he says. “I don’t think it’s going to take San Diego long to find out about it. But I’m more mature. You have to take things and let things go.”

He has had his share of run-ins. Contract problems with the Blue Jays in 1986. Differences with his teammates after he took himself out of a game in Kansas City last season. Constant disagreements with the Toronto media. They found him moody. He found them unfair.

He became a born-again Christian in 1984, and faith remains a top priority in his life. Talk to people who know Fernandez and they will tell you he is quiet and introspective.

“Coming from a different culture and country has a lot to do with it,” Fernandez said. “Latin players are very, very sensitive. But we are sincere, and very honest. Because growing up as a kid everybody stepped on me, the only way I can stop you is by acting tough.”

Said Ash: “He stays to himself. He has a strong foundation in Christianity. He is very family-oriented. He’s a guy who is on his own.”

Despite his success in Toronto, despite the silky smooth glove and the quick bat, Fernandez says he was “kind of expecting” the trade.

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And not only that, he was hoping he would be traded.

“I figured it was time for me to move on in my career,” he said.

He had the statistics and the four Gold Gloves, but the Blue Jays never made it to the World Series. And the Toronto media never let them forget it. The Blue Jays blew chances on a handful of occasions--including once in 1985 when they led Kansas City in the playoffs, three games to one--and the outcry that resulted left the players defensive and bitter. Blow Jays, they were called.

Fernandez’s own wounds cut deep.

“It didn’t matter how good I was,” he said. “It was never enough for the media of Toronto. They tried to get me out. I think they tried to give me a bad rap with the fans and the players. Sometimes, they start picking on players. . . .

“They can be very demanding. What have you done for me lately? What can you do for me now?”

Fernandez quit reading the newspapers. He would watch the news on television to see game highlights, but always with the volume turned down.

“Sometimes,” he said, “you’re better off not knowing what is going on.”

He wasn’t aware that he is Toronto’s all-time batting leader.

“I didn’t know that,” he said. “Maybe the Toronto media should know it.”

He didn’t know he is baseball’s all-time fielding leader when it comes to fewest errors per chance.

“I don’t keep up with stats,” he said. “I just like to have fun like I used to when I was a kid.”

Fernandez can field, he can hit, and he can steal a few bases--more than 20 in four of the past five seasons.

“I love to run,” Fernandez said. “Sometimes, it can be frustrating when I can’t run. That’s what gets me going. Fielding has got to be the most exciting. I love to hit and I love to field--and I love to run.”

A wide smile crossed his face.

“When I see a ball in the gap, I like to run like crazy. They say I run like a chicken with his head cut off--that’s what George Bell always used to say in Toronto.”

Now, he is doubled over with laughter.

“ ‘Tony, stop,’ George would say. But I’m going to run until my legs stop.”

He is a study in contradictions: He loves to run, but he walks so slowly it is almost painful to watch. Jose Oquendo, an infielder with the St. Louis Cardinals, calls him “Old Man.” Fernandez, injured often and even labeled a quitter by some after pulling himself out of a game in Kansas City last season, had a streak of 403 consecutive games played that was snapped in 1987. In his six full seasons in the majors, he has played in at least 150 games four times. And, he says he doesn’t keep up with stats because he just wants to have fun like he used to when he was a kid.

For a long time when he was young, he didn’t enjoy the game.

He grew up in San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, and his family was so poor he and his six brothers couldn’t afford baseball equipment. His twin brother, Jose, became adept at making baseball gloves out of cardboard boxes. And the balls? Jose would make them out of rubber and string, and sew a sock around the outside.

There was just one problem for Tony. He wasn’t very good. His brothers actually used to chase him away from the baseball fields. You’re good for nothing, they would tell him. Get lost.

Fernandez would go off on his own. He didn’t like the game much, but when your brothers play, that’s what you want to do.

So he would wander off toward the baseball stadium near his house, where the San Pedro winter league team played. Guys like Tony LaRussa, Ray Knight and Larry Milbourne would let him field ground balls.

“That’s how I learned the game,” he said. “My brothers didn’t let me play with them.”

Soon, he blossomed. His game quickly surpassed most of the kids in his neighborhood--including his brothers.

Next, he had to get around the wishes of his mother. He had a knee problem--bone chips--and she blamed it on baseball.

“My mom said, ‘Forget baseball,’ ” Fernandez said.

But by then, he couldn’t. He had learned to like baseball, and his goal was to become a professional. He dreamed of signing a contract and then fixing up the family house with his bonus money.

He finally signed as a free agent with the Blue Jays in April, 1979. Then he went home and told his mother and . . .

Tony: “Mom, I signed.”

Tony’s mother: “Get outta here.”

Tony: “No, really.”

The bonus money took about a month to arrive. When it did, Fernandez brought it home and threw it on his mother’s bed. It wasn’t until then that she believed him.

Before long, he had the house fixed up.

“I’ve seen some pretty good shortstops--I played with (Dave) Concepcion in Cincinnati,” Riddoch said. “This guy is every bit as good or better. He just has the tools. He’s one of the premier shortstops in the game.”

As it turned out, the bone chips were only the start in a succession of injuries. During his time with Toronto, he suffered a broken left hand, had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, fractured a bone in his right elbow, fractured a right cheek bone when he was hit in the face with a Cecilio Guante pitch and had arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder.

The Padres studied his medical history during trade talks last winter, but that didn’t turn them off.

“You have to be (concerned) to some extent,” McIlvaine said. “But injuries or not, he went out and played 161 games last year, and he is only 28 years old. When you play 161 games in a position as demanding as shortstop, you’ve got to be in pretty good shape.”

Fernandez’s alienation in Toronto worsened after the game in Kansas City shortly after returning last season from his broken cheekbone.

He remembers he struck out three times that night and, in the seventh inning after the third time, he took himself out of the game.

“I felt I wasn’t helping the team,” he said. “I said, ‘Forget it, I’m out of here.’ I think that was a mistake I made. Since that day, the heat was on me.”

The whispers began. The media, fans and even his teammates. One of the worst names you can call an athlete surfaced. Quitter.

“It got to me,” he said. “Over the years in Toronto, I played my heart out.

“Honesty has been my problem, like that day in KC.”

He apologized to his teammates the next day for begging out of the lineup. Still, what happened, happened.

“There are going to be days when I don’t hit,” McGriff said. “Some days, I’m going to be brutal. But I feel I can help the team defensively. I think the players felt, even if he wasn’t hitting, he’s such a good shortstop he could save some runs.”

McGriff remembers Fernandez’s apology the next day.

“He just said he was sorry for coming out of the game,” McGriff said. “Everybody is going to struggle and have bad days. Sometimes, you’ve just got to suck it up and go on out there. Baseball is the type of game where you’ve got nowhere to hide.”

Baseball is also the type of game in which, no matter what you have done, somebody else is eventually going to replace you. When Fernandez was ready for the majors, the Blue Jays traded a pretty fair shortstop named Alfredo Griffin. Now, Fernandez replaces Templeton, and the Blue Jays have somebody else they think can plug Fernandez’s hole.

“I can express only gratitude to the organization,” Fernandez said. “I made my name in Toronto. It’s a part of my life. My three children were born there. We called Toronto our second home for many years.

“But it’s very hard for me. And especially for my oldest one.”

Fernandez and his wife, Clara, have three sons--Joel, 6; Jonathan, 4; and Abraham, 3. For awhile, Joel took the trade the hardest. How do you explain that part of baseball to a 6-year-old?

“We’re not going back to Toronto,” Tony told Joel. “They don’t want me there.”

Fernandez still has some explaining to do because now, after a winter at their off-season home in Florida, Joel likes it there. But in a couple of weeks, Fernandez’s wife and kids will be moving to San Diego, where they will begin a new inning in their lives.

“All I heard is that San Diego is a nice city,” Fernandez said. “I know I left a first-class organization. It’s going to take me awhile to get to know these people.”

And, for them to get to know him.

“I can be easy-going, and I can be intense at times,” he said. “I can be my own worst enemy. I’m a hard worker. Sometimes, I think I’m a perfectionist. Nobody’s perfect. I think I’m a private person--I like to be alone. I like to play the game, but I don’t like too much attention. I don’t like to be in the spotlight.

“I was very shy as a kid. Sometimes I try to hide myself. Sometimes, I pretend to be tough so people don’t take advantage of me. Deep inside, I’m different. Many people think they know me.

“They don’t.”


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