Faith on the diamond
demonstrated his commitment to Christ following an error in the World
On a steamy October night in Miami,
with Game 7 of the 1997 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and
the Florida Marlins knotted at two runs apiece in the 11th inning, Craig
Counsell hit a slow ground ball to Tony Fernandez at second base. In
his haste to turn a routine double play, Fernandez missed the ball and
watched it roll lazily into the outfield setting up the go-ahead
run and a 3-2 Marlins victory over his Indians.
Although Fernandezs list of
accomplishments is long earning a World Series ring (1993), appearing
in four All-Star games and winning four Gold Glove awards (1986-1989),
holding the major league record for career fielding percentage by a
shortstop (.980), as well as the Toronto Blue Jays all-time record for
most triples (70) it was that championship-killing error on the
night of October 26, 1997, that has given Tony Fernandez what may be
the best platform he has ever had to talk about his faith in Jesus Christ.
It all started for Tony Fernandez
(one of 11 children born into a Baptist pastors family) in a tiny
house behind a professional ballpark in San Pedro de Macoris, a city
in the Dominican Republic. Growing up just a foul ball away from the
action gave young Fernandez a jump on the game he would join as a professional
when he was just 17 years old.
As a youngster, Fernandez faithfully
attended school, then hurried home every day. He dropped off his books
on the kitchen table and headed to the ballpark. There he shagged balls
every afternoon until the last player left or the demands of his mother
brought him home to complete his family chores.
Tony grew up playing among professional
ballplayers, borrowing the gloves of Ray Knight (former Reds manager)
or Larry Milbourne (infielder with Houston, Seattle and the Yankees
in the 70s and 80s) or any number of other pros who played
winter ball in the Dominican Republic. The big guys encouraged him,
telling him that if he developed physically he had a good chance of
becoming a major league ballplayer himself. Six days a week he lived
at the ballpark.
Attending church each Sunday was
a must in Tonys life. "It was go to church or get a spanking,"
he says with a laugh. So for many years he attended the services at
his fathers church out of duty. But most Sundays found the ballpark
behind his home buzzing with activity as the professional teams prepared
for and played their league games. Church and baseball did not seem
destined to coexist in Fernandezs life. "In my mothers
opinion you could not be a professional ballplayer and a Christian,"
he says. "The two lifestyles didnt fit together to most people
in my country."
At one point, the lure of a professional
life playing ball became too strong to resist. Fernandez seemingly abandoned
his faith and quit going to church, opting instead to play at the ball
yard. "I took a few spankings," he admits.
Fernandezs baseball skills
did not go unnoticed. He had become an aggressive hitter (he knew he
couldnt "walk" his way off the island), and he had a
great glove. A beckon from the Toronto Blue Jays organization on April
24, 1979, after he had just completed his junior year at Gasto Fernando
High School, made the controversial decision between church and baseball
an easy one for Tony. He headed for Class-A ball in the Carolina League
with a free agent contract in one hand and a glove on the other.
Although he disagreed with his mother
about the role of baseball in his life, Fernandez never stopped wanting
to please her and his dad, and he always wanted to please the God they
served. So he lived a very strict life during his minor league years,
devoting himself to working hard at his God-given skills. He worked
his way to the majors as a shortstop by the end of 1983.
When he arrived for spring training
in 1984, he was married and had a cast on his left hand from a hairline
fracture. He missed most of spring training waiting for the bone to
At about the same time, Fernandez
began to feel that he was missing something in his life something
not even baseball or a brand-new marriage to Clara could ever fill.
"I reached my childhood dream
when I was called up to the big leagues," Tony says. But the fulfillment
of his dream did not bring satisfaction. "There was nothing there.
God had made me a ballplayer as I had asked Him to earlier. When I reached
that level and found I was still empty, I asked, Whats going
on? This is not what I thought it would be. I was happy to make
it to the majors, but it was not what I was looking for. There was still
something missing. At that point I realized I needed something bigger.
"I thank God for my parents
and what they did and what they taught me early in my life. I always
had a respect for God. I had a great foundation for my life, but it
wasnt until 1984, after I broke my wrist, that I understood how
to have a personal relationship with Him. People always talk about religion,
but I found out that religion is man-made. What God wants is a relationship.
"Jesse Barfield and Roy Lee
Jackson were on the team at the time, and I remember Jesse telling me,
You know, Jesus loves you and He wants to bless you more than
He already has. And I said, I know I grew up in a
Christian home. I thought having Christian parents was an automatic
ticket to heaven.
"Jesse kept witnessing to me,
but I thought I knew all about God."
One day, after a baseball chapel
service, Fernandez decided it was time to give his life to Jesus. "I
remember walking out of the chapel, across the locker room, and I called
to Jesse. I said, Jesse, hey, I think Im ready to accept
Christ. He said, Do you think youre really ready?
Then he looked me straight in the eyes and said, I think you are,
and he called Roy Lee Jackson and the other ones [from the chapel service].
I remember that right at that moment I gave my life to Jesus."
Clara had also accepted Christ the
night before while meeting with Marla Barfield and Mary Jackson. "It
was a blessing for me," Tony says about hearing from Clara that
she had become a believer. "Ever since, I have been trying to please
God in every way in my work."
Over the past 13 major league seasons,
Fernandez has received many honors, suffered several injuries, endured
at least half a dozen trades including stints with the Padres,
the Mets, the Reds, the Yankees, and Blue Jays (several times)
and adjusted to position changes from shortstop to third base, then
to second. It hasnt always been easy.
His faith has been tested.
The New York media was particularly
tough on Fernandez when he played for the Mets (1992-93). He had been
suffering from kidney stones and playing in great pain.
Less than a year later, he was overlooked
during contract negotiations after being traded to the Blue Jays and
contributing significantly to their 1993 World Series championship.
He explains the problem as a misunderstanding between his agent and
the Toronto organization.
Then, after being picked up by the
Reds (1994) and traded to the Yankees (1995), he missed the entire 1996
season with a broken right elbow.
"I didnt know how to
deal with it at first," Fernandez admits. But he came to realize
that "the Lord doesnt promise we will go through the world
without problems. We have to be ready for them. I was accused of many
things, but I dont believe in answering back to people through
the media. I try to let my work do the talking and wait for God to give
me a chance to shine."
The veteran infielder feels that
God has been teaching him many lessons. "I had to learn that a
Christians life shouldnt change. Whether I do good or do
bad, Jesus still loves me the same. My faith and salvation are not based
on what I do or dont do on the field, or what people think. If
I keep this in perspective, then Ill have no trouble. If I keep
my eyes on Jesus, then Im in good shape."
The 1997 postseason proved that
Tony had learned these lessons well. He became the hero of the American
League Championship Series with a game-winning home run in Game 6 to
clinch the American League pennant for the Indians.
During the World Series, his glove
(at second base) and his bat (.471 for the Series) kept the Indians
championship hopes alive, taking them into Game 7 against the Marlins.
Fernandez continued his postseason
prowess in Game 7 when he hit a third-inning single that drove in two
runs to put the Indians on top. But then came that fateful 11th inning
and the error that crushed the championship dreams of the Cleveland
"I dont want to make
any excuses," Fernandez told reporters after the game, "I
am prepared for anything in life. Things like this happen for a reason."
This time the press was impressed
with what they called the "deeply religious" baseball player
from the Dominican Republic. They commented on Tonys dignity and
patience as he answered the questions from the myriad of reporters who
swarmed around him. They defended his skill and his tremendous contribution
to the Indians run for the world championship title.
Fernandez admits that dealing with
the error and the loss wasnt easy, though. "It was particularly
hard on my five children," he says. "One son was crying to
me after the game, and I told him to remember its just a game.
If you do your best, thats all you can do. If the outcome is different
than what you expected, you cant change that. You have to always
be ready to accept the good and the bad."
For Fernandez, a favorite Bible
passage explains how he was able to deal with the situation with such
grace. "Jesus says [in Matthew 7:24-27] that when disaster strikes,
if your life is founded on the Rock [Jesus Christ] it wont be
shaken it doesnt matter how hard the wind blows or the
"But if your life is based
on earthly success, then when you have disaster youre in trouble.
That is why I was able to handle it very, very effectively. I think
God gave me this platform to glorify Him. My main purpose on this earth
is to serve Him no matter what, and be obedient to His calling."
Reprinted with permission from Sports
Spectrum, June 1998.
Gwen Diaz is
a freelance writer who lives in Lakeland, Fla.