Fernandez in a Sub Conscious State : Baseball: Role of backup long has been familiar to Phoenix catcher and former CSUN quarterback.
The memory unfolds like a dream.
Dan Fernandez looks up from the on-deck circle and into the crowd at Candlestick Park. He hears no sounds in this silent-screen recollection.
The Giants trail, 8-7, with two out in the bottom of the eighth inning. The tying run is on third base.
As Fernandez takes his place in the batter’s box one phrase echoes in his head: “Get a good pitch. Get a good pitch. Get a good . . .”
The first pitch approaches in what seems like slow motion. A ball.
The next pitch arrives. Fernandez swings and strokes a clean base hit to right field. Tie score.
Fernandez is standing at first base, soaking in the scene. The crowd is cheering, but he doesn’t hear it.
The San Francisco Giants are playing the Oakland A’s in the Bay Series, just before the start of the regular season.
In other words, Fernandez’s hit--off Ed Vosberg, a journeyman left-hander--has knotted the score in nothing more than a practice game.
But for Fernandez, the hit might as well have come off Sandy Koufax in the World Series.
Big league park. Big league uniform. Family back home in San Lorenzo, Calif., watching on television.
Six years toiling in the minor leagues for this moment.
“For just about five seconds, that was much bigger than just an RBI-hit in an exhibition game,” Fernandez said. “It was really neat.”
How soon the bubble bursts. Six pitches later, Fernandez is picked off first.
If, as Andy Warhol claims, each person experiences 15 minutes of fame in a lifetime, Fernandez figures he has plenty of time remaining.
He is sitting at his cubicle in the clubhouse of the Phoenix Firebirds, the Giants’ affiliate in the triple-A Pacific Coast League.
In a little less than two hours, the Firebirds will play host to the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. But, for the most part, Fernandez’s work is complete.
He has caught pitchers working in the bullpen. He has taken his requisite hacks in the batting cage. He has listened to batting coach Duane Espy tell him, for the umpteenth time, what a fine swing he has.
Now he will sit and watch the game from the dugout. This is his routine as the backup catcher.
Hasn’t this always been his routine?
Fernandez, 28, hasn’t been a starter since he was a two-sport star at Chabot College, a junior college in Northern California. Even at Cal State Northridge he was a backup--in two sports, no less.
Always the usher, never the groom.
Fernandez came to Northridge in the fall of 1985 on a football scholarship, expecting to be “the star quarterback.” It never happened.
In his first season with the Matadors, Fernandez lost a close battle with Chris Parker, another junior college transfer, for the job as starting quarterback.
Parker, who later played arena football, set school records for passes attempted and completed in a season. In two seasons Fernandez passed for fewer than 800 yards. So much for a career on the gridiron.
He went out for baseball as an afterthought and saw even less game action than he did in football. In two seasons he played in 18 games and had only 44 at-bats.
As Parker was in football, Fernandez said, Northridge catcher Scott McIntyre was “the better player.”
Still, George Genovese, a renowned Giant scout in the area, thought enough of Fernandez’s catching skills to sign him as a free agent late in the summer of 1987.
Not that Genovese was taking much of a gamble. The only signing bonus Fernandez received was an airline ticket to Arizona for the fall instructional league.
Now in his seventh professional season, Fernandez has defied the odds. He survived a .226 batting average in his rookie season at Class-A Clinton, Iowa, in 1988. He survived three stops in Class-A San Jose, and three more in double-A Shreveport, La. This is his third stint in Phoenix.
Along the way he has been understudy to major leaguers Steve Decker, Scooter Tucker and Jim McNamara. “If you want to make it to the big leagues,” Fernandez said with a laugh, “I’m the guy to have behind you.”
Carlos Alfonso, manager of the Firebirds, has been in professional baseball 26 years as a player and coach. He is sure there have been other players who battled their way up to triple A despite never winning a full-time job.
“But I can’t name one,” he said.
In his minor-league career, Fernandez has 901 at-bats. For a regular, that’s about two full seasons.
During one stretch this season, Phoenix played 69 games in 68 days. Fernandez played consecutive games only once--when starter Tom Lampkin missed a four-game series in Vancouver because of an illness.
The longest extended periods of playing time in Fernandez’s career were the 40 games he played in two months for the Firebirds last season and a streak of 16 consecutive games for Shreveport two years ago.
Dave Stablefeldt, a Northridge assistant, used to tell Fernandez the first thing he would learn in the minors was his “breaking point"--the juncture at which the grind of catching every day exceeds a player’s physical capabilities.
“I still haven’t found out what mine is,” Fernandez said. “In my role, I probably never will.”
He acknowledges that hitting has been a career-long problem. Fernandez has never hit better than .263 in a season, which he accomplished in all of 76 at-bats for San Jose in 1990.
“Hitting was the problem early,” Alfonso said. “Now it’s the inability to get more playing time to find out just how much he really has improved.”
By watching and listening, Fernandez said, he has improved plenty, a claim supported by Alfonso.
“Dan is one of the few guys I’ve seen in this game who has improved every year,” Alfonso said. “If he had a little more experience in school, before he signed, I’m not so sure he wouldn’t have made the big leagues by now.”
As it is, he has mastered some of the fundamentals of hitting only recently, occasionally to the surprise of baffled teammates.
“Sometimes I notice things and will say something to a guy who plays all the time and he’ll look at me like I just came out of Little League,” said Fernandez, who is batting .260 in 100 at-bats.
“Here I am, in my seventh year, and I’m just now experiencing some success at this stuff. There’s no substitute for actually doing it.”
Fernandez’s game is similar to that of Kirt Manwaring. The Giants’ Gold Glove-winning catcher is a .240 hitter who calls a good game and is strong defensively. Fernandez threw out almost half of the runners who attempted to steal on him last season and committed eight errors.
“They say I catch about as well as it can be done,” Fernandez said. “They just want to see me become a little more consistent (as a hitter) at the plate.”
And therein, of course, lies the paradox. How might the Giants expect consistent play from one who so rarely plays?
Fernandez has considered the same question “about a thousand times.”
“That had always been an excuse, kind of a crutch for me. ‘They don’t play me regularly. That’s why I don’t hit.’ Finally, I said forget it. There are no excuses. When you play, produce. That’s it.”
Fernandez’s attitude has made him a favorite throughout the Giants organization. Said Alfonso, who formerly headed the entire minor league system: “Every time we’d have meetings, there was always a manager who wanted him. He’s that kind of kid.”
Not that Fernandez doesn’t grapple with bitterness occasionally.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I get really depressed and tired of doing what I’m doing--or what I’m not doing. But then I go home, think about it a little bit, and come back the next day hungrier than I’ve ever been.
“Obviously, I’m not where I want to be, but . . .”
He gestures toward his teammates cavorting around the Firebird clubhouse. There is carpet on the floor, a stereo system, a television hookup and air-conditioning.
Many professional ballplayers have it a lot worse.
”. . . I’m doing basically what I want to be doing.”
It’s not the big leagues, but not the bush leagues, either.
“Hey,” he said, “considering what they probably expected out of me when I started, I’m in triple A and still playin’. That’s not too bad.”