To Absent Friends: Fernandez, Kahn, and Bouton

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(Thanks to legendary sports columnist Red Smith for the title)

Some reflections on former Blue Jays SS Tony Fernandez, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 57 from complications of a stroke.  Fernandez had been in declining health for some time, and was awaiting a kidney transplant when he passed eight years to the day that another Canadian baseball hero, Gary Carter, lost his battle with brain cancer.

 

Even before he became a Blue Jay, we all knew about Tony Fernandez.  Before Baseball America had moved out of founder Allan Simpson’s Vancouver garage,  milb.com and streaming video, and endless prospecting accounts littered the social media landscape, Toronto beat writers had let us know that the latest product of the Short Stop factory that was the Dominican town of San Pedro de Macoris (a place few could find on a map) was bound to be the best of the bunch.  Bill James, in his 1984 Baseball Abstract wondered aloud why Fernandez, who had widely been considered the top prospect in the game for two seasons, could not dislodge the Toronto incumbent when he opined, “who the hell is Alfredo Griffin that he can stand in the way of Tony Fernandez?”  This was not necessarily a slight at the former AL Co-ROY (who was also an All Star in ’84), as much as it was bewilderment that the Blue Jays didn’t seem to think Fernandez, who was superior on both sides of the ball, was ready for prime time.

That all became moot by 1985.  Promoted for good in mid-season in 1984, Fernandez took over the starting job from Griffin, who was dealt in a package the following off season to acquire Oakland Closer Bill Caudill, who lost his fastball and the stopper role to Tom Henke part way through the season.

 

Epifano (“Epy” for short) Guerrero shared a first name with this father and grandfather.  One of five brothers born to a Dominican family in the 1940s, he briefly played in the Braves organization, while his brother Mario went on to an eight-year MLB career.  Following his release by the Braves, Epy returned home and went to work for his father, who ran a grocery business and a cattle farm.  He kept his hand in the game when Tony Pacheco of the Astros hired him as a part-time DR scout.  When Guerrero helped Houston land prized Dominican prospect Cesar Cedeno,  a fellow Astros scout named Pat Gillick recommended the club hire Guerrero on a full-time basis, signalling the start of a working relationship between the two that would span three teams and almost thirty years.

Recognizing a need brought on by poverty, Guerrero borrowed money in 1977 to establish a baseball academy near Santo Domingo.  There, he could house, feed, train, and educate young players of promise in a suitable environment.  One of the first players he brought on board was a young Tony Fernandez, whose athleticism was obvious, but had developed a limp as a teenager due to a knee injury.  Guerrero paid for an operation to remove bone chips, and Fernandez was soon on his way.

Word quickly spread of the quality of prospects Guerrero was producing, and the Blue Jays, fresh off of a reorganization of the baseball side of the team’s administration in the wake of the departure of Peter Bavasi, the team’s President since its inception, were looking to tap new markets.  Pat Gillick, who had been the GM under Bavasi but in a scheme more like today’s President-GM scenario, saw his powers widen as a result of the changes, and the Blue Jays in 1981 began to use Guerrero’s complex, after already having signed Fernandez in 1979.  Two seasons later, he was the next thing.  Sportsnet’s Gare Joyce, in a bio published today, wrote that Guerrero felt Fernandez was destined for greatness:

One day they will say that Tony Fernandez is the greatest of all Dominican ballplayers. No doubt he has the heart to play, the head to learn. He’s the best shortstop in baseball but he’s still learning, still improving, still working harder.

 

In his first tour with the Blue Jays, Fernandez would check a lot of boxes for modern-day scouts:  good instincts and reactions to batted balls, smooth footwork, soft hands, efficient transfer, quick release, strong accurate throwing arm.  He seemed to effortlessly glide to ground balls, then release what often appeared to be an off-balance, almost sidearm flick of the ball to nip the batter at 1st.  But there was usually plenty on that throw, and that ability to get rid of the ball in such a hurry bought him that extra split second to make that play.  He just seemed to make it look so easy.

At the plate, Fernandez, like so many of his fellow countrymen, put the ball in play, following the old adage, “You don’t walk off the Island.”  He collected over 200 hits in only his second full season, posted an OPS around .340 for the last half of the decade, and was a smart base runner, routinely posting double-digit totals in stolen bases, and getting from 1st to 3rd about as quickly as anyone in the game.  He may not have had a great deal of pop by today’s standards, but Fernandez had a knack for getting on base.  In offensive terms, Fernandez was very much a product of his time and his environment, but he was a very effective player at the plate, a key contributor to those Blue Jays teams of the late 80s that always just fell short.

 

Fernandez’ career, of course, turned out to be less than the sum of its parts.  His was not the first career to be impacted by Exhibition Stadium’s concrete-like turf; two serious injuries didn’t help.  The first, of course, was Bill Madlock’s out-of-the-basepath slide that took Fernandez out on a double play relay with the Blue Jays in the middle of a four game set with the Tigers, who trailed the Jays by 2.5 games with 9 left to play heading into the series.  Was it a dirty play?  Not by the standards of the time – breaking up the double play in that manner was considered a smart baseball play.  Fernandez had the misfortune of landing on a wooden framework underneath the carpet surrounding 2nd Base at the Ex.  Fernandez was in the midst of a career season at the plate, but his absence on both sides of the ball was sorely felt.  The Blue Jays hung on to win that game as well as the next two against the Tigers, but dropped their last seven straight, losing the AL East pennant to Detroit in frustrating fashion in three straight one-run losses at Tiger Stadium.  Without their leadoff hitter, their catalyst on the bases, and one of their best clutch hitters, the Blue Jays just did not seem to be able to cash in runs when they needed them most.

The second injury which sidetracked Fernandez was when he was hit by a pitch from Texas’ Cecilio Guante in the fifth game of the 1989 season.  The pitch broke the bone above his right eye in three places.  Fernandez missed a month of the season, and while he was decent offensively, he produced the lowest triple slash numbers of his career up that point.  Perhaps the combined effect of the beaning, and the wear and tear of almost a half dozen seasons on the Exhibition Stadium turf caused Gillick to look to deal his All Star SS.  Certainly, Gillick was not one to rush things, having been given the nickname “Stand Pat,” by the Toronto media for his reluctance to drastically alter the core of the group he had assembled, despite their failing to break through.  Seeking a change, however, Gillick shipped Fernandez and slugging 1B Fred McGriff to the Padres that offseason for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar in a deal that reshaped the Blue Jays, and changed the course of the franchise’s history.  Fernandez came back to Toronto in 93 to help lead the team to its second straight World Series title.  Even though he was a reasonably productive player after that, he and the Blue Jays wandered the baseball wilderness after that season.  He came back to Toronto in the late 90s, and actually was more of a contributor with the bat than he was than with the glove, sliding over to 2nd and then eventually 3rd, posting a career-high .877 OPS in 1999 while almost exclusively playing the hot corner.

Despite appearing in 5 All Star games and capturing 4 Gold Gloves,  Fernandez did not merit serious Hall of Fame consideration.  Just the same, for that stretch from 1985-1990, he was arguably the best player at the position, and he arguably fulfilled Epy Guerrero’s prophecy from years earlier.  By all accounts, Fernandez was a HOF individual, though, and the deeply religious man seemed to be a genuinely good guy, who was very compassionate about people and his faith.

 

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Last week, we learned of the passing of legendary New York-based sportswriter, author, and editor Roger Kahn at the age of 92.

Kahn covered the Dodgers in their final glory days in Brooklyn, and a number of years later caught up to a number of those players from that era, and packaged their recollections in his seminal work The Boys of Summer.

Kahn’s career spanned two eras itself.  Initially, baseball writers did not make much less than the players themselves, travelled with them, ate with them, and in some cases, caroused with them.  It tended to be in their best interest to keep tales of the latter to themselves, however.  As the decade of the 1950s wound down, however, readers were clamoring more and more for details of their heroes’ personal lives, as star athletes crossed the divide between players and celebrities.  Not everyone was thrilled with that development.  Eric Nusbaum, writing for Slate, felt that Kahn successfully bridged that gap, and was able to write about players in more human terms:

  Kahn’s great achievement was the way his work helped recast professional ballplayers as emotional, vulnerable human beings. He trafficked in the classical notion of athletes as mythical heroes, but he simultaneously was hip to the fact that maybe being a hero isn’t all it’s cut out to be.

My favourite Kahn work was not The Boys, however.  Maybe it’s because I was born well after the Dodgers left Brooklyn, or maybe because I was fortunate enough to stumble across another Kahn tome in the bargain bin at my local Coles (maybe showing I’m a bit older than what you might think, after all).  Good Enough to Dream is Kahn’s account of his crossing a divide himself – one between writer and baseball owner.  After a lengthy search, Kahn found an independent team (the orphaned Utica Blue Sox) in the New York Penn League to run.  Good Enough is the documentation of that full of ups and downs season.  Maybe it’s an obscure work, but it’s stood the test of time after almost 40 years, and remains one of my favourite baseball books. A day-by-day summary of the season, the reader experiences the highs and lows, the ridiculous and the sublime, along with Kahn.

Working on a project that involves recounting a baseball season from the past myself, I often felt the spirit of Kahn working its way into my narrative, and has helped shape the running dialogue form that I’ve used.

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Jim Bouton’s Ball Four may be dated, but it still remains at the top of my list.  Bouton was a product of that era that Kahn bridged, and like countless people his age, caused him to question not only the squeaky clean image of stars, but many other things in the world, including teachers, parents, politicians, and authority in general.  It was America’s loss of innocence, and coming of age.

In failing health for the past few years, Bouton passed away last summer, just a year short of celebrating a half century since the publication of his groundbreaking book.  Other tell-alls have come along in the years since that make Bouton’s revelations seem tame, but Ball Four has stood the test of time.

   Ball Four was a diary as well, a chronicle of Bouton’s season with the 1969 Seattle Pilots, a wretched expansion team that snuck out of town before the following season began.  After being a part of the last years of the Yankee dynasty in the early 60s, Bouton developed arm problems, and wandered the minors for five seasons before landing with the Pilots.

Jane Leavy, author of excellent works on Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Sandy Koufax, among others, posits that it was the famous incident at the Copacabana nightclub in 1957, when the Yankees, led by Billy Martin, got into a brawl with drunken bowlers from Queens.  Instead of being swept under the carpet by the media, many details came out into the open, which was a major reversal.  Readers devoured this new approach, and the old way of covering a team was suddenly a thing of the past in a very competitive newspaper market.  In some ways, Bouton was a product of this environment, and he proved to be a shrewd and sometimes cynical observer of the world in general, and baseball in particular.

Bouton, among many other observations, had much to say about Mantle.  A good portion of the public did not take well to the negative things he had to say, but Bouton tried to be balanced.  But he had learned as a teenager to not take events or people at face value.  He saw Mick as a great ballplayer, but also as a flawed human being, much like the rest of us.

Because of the tales of drinking, infidelity, and the usual course language of the clubhouse that were rife throughout Ball Four, my parents had forbidden me to read it, although my older brother did, and I quickly gobbled it up after he had finished it, reading it by flashlight late at night after they had gone to bed.  It was the first “adult”/non-school book I had ever read, and it developed in me a thirst for much more.  Good readers make good writers, my teachers always said, and while I’ll let you all decide on the latter, there is no doubt that my avid reading of anything and everything related to baseball not only made Christmas gift giving easy for my family, my ability to string together sentences and paragraphs (that came from all of that reading) helped me through high school, university, teacher’s college, and far beyond. And far from corrupting me (I had already been in my fair share of baseball and hockey locker rooms by that point, with many more to go), Ball Four intensified my love of the game.

Several years ago, I reached out to Bouton by email to let him know what an influence Ball Four had been on me.  To my surprise, he responded almost right away, and we struck up a bit of a correspondence over the years.  I told him that my dream was one day to catch that old knuckleball of his, and if my wife and I ever made it to his neck of the woods in Massachusetts, I would love to throw the ball with him.  He observed that maybe his home was a bit out of our way, but if business brought him back to Toronto, he would be sure to let me know.  And he would bring his glove.

Bouton never returned to Toronto, of course.  He suffered a stroke in 2012, and struggled with both dementia and brain disease in the final innings of his life.  He was described as the first fan to ever make it to the Major Leagues. I’m sure I would still love baseball had Bouton never put pen to paper; I’m not so sure that love would’ve been as lengthy or as deep.

 

One thought on “To Absent Friends: Fernandez, Kahn, and Bouton

  1. Great column on Tony, Roger and Jim. I met Tony at a fund raising meeting for events for diabetes after he retired. Although not diabetic, many diabetics have kidney complications. Tony was a true gentleman and always had time to support charitable causes that were close to him. RIP Tony

    Liked by 1 person

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