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Faith on the diamond

Tony Fernandez demonstrated his commitment to Christ following an error in the World Series

By Gwen Diaz

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 Fernandez’s 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 pastor’s 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 Tony’s 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 father’s 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 Fernandez’s life. "In my mother’s opinion you could not be a professional ballplayer and a Christian," he says. "The two lifestyles didn’t 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.

Fernandez’s baseball skills did not go unnoticed. He had become an aggressive hitter (he knew he couldn’t "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 heal.

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, ‘What’s 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 wasn’t 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 I’m ready to accept Christ.’ He said, ‘Do you think you’re 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 hasn’t 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 didn’t know how to deal with it at first," Fernandez admits. But he came to realize that "the Lord doesn’t promise we will go through the world without problems. We have to be ready for them. I was accused of many things, but I don’t 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 Christian’s life shouldn’t 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 don’t do on the field, or what people think. If I keep this in perspective, then I’ll have no trouble. If I keep my eyes on Jesus, then I’m 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 Indians.

"I don’t 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 Tony’s 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 wasn’t 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 it’s just a game. If you do your best, that’s all you can do. If the outcome is different than what you expected, you can’t 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 won’t be shaken – it doesn’t matter how hard the wind blows or the rain falls.

"But if your life is based on earthly success, then when you have disaster you’re 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.

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