Fernandez remains rooted in his faith

Fernandez remains a man rooted in his faith

TORONTO -- The grind of a 162-game baseball season is hard on a ballplayer's body, but is perhaps even harder on his mind. With the inability to escape the black-and-white details of one's play, and the constant attention from fans and media, it is hard for a player to find some peace.

In the case of Blue Jays legend Tony Fernandez, however, he was able to escape from the stress of the ball diamond by turning to a higher power.

"It helped to put things in perspective," Fernandez said. "Many thought we were too religious, and that sports and religion do not mix. In my case, I think it really helped me, and I think many Christian athletes would agree with what I'm saying. It helped my career a lot, because sometimes it gets so hard to cope with the day-to-day pressure of the game."

Since his retirement in 2001, Fernandez has continued to follow his faith. The former shortstop became an ordained minister after graduating from ministry school, and devotes much of his time to his foundation for needy children in Central and South America, and in his native Dominican Republic. Fernandez is a proud Dominican, and has been critical in the past about the financial treatment of Latino players in baseball. He feels the current situation for Latinos, however, is improving.

"It's nice to see some of my fellow countrymen getting more recognition," Fernandez said. "They're getting better contracts, so they're getting the recognition that they deserve. Hopefully it will get better and better for generations to come."

Fernandez was back in Toronto for the club's "Flashback Friday" promotion, where a former Jays star appears at the Rogers Centre for each Friday home game. He was also promoting his third annual charity golf tournament that helps support his foundation.

"Hopefully we will see some of the fans there," Fernandez said. "We are looking for sponsorship, both corporate and from individuals, to raise the funds necessary to help those children."

Fernandez has returned to Toronto many times since his retirement in 2001, and it could be said that his tenure with the Jays was defined by his arrivals and departures. Fernandez played four separate stints with the Jays -- from 1983-90, the second half of the '93 season, and then two seasons as the team's third baseman in '98-99. His final time as a Blue Jay was a 48-game stretch in 2001 that Fernandez said was somewhat ceremonial.

"My last time was when I just came here to say goodbye to baseball," Fernandez said. "I was grateful for the opportunity to be able to come back and retire in the place where I started my career. The previous three times were more meaningful, in a sense, because I was still playing."

"I felt so comfortable here," he added. "I felt I was at home."

Given his success in Toronto, it is no surprise that he kept wanting to come back. Fernandez batted .297 in his franchise-record 1,450 games as a Blue Jay, and he is the franchise's career leader with 1,583 hits. His 213 hits in 1986 was the first time a Jay had cracked the 200-hit plateau, and it stood as a team record until Vernon Wells delivered 215 hits in 2003.

Fernandez is a prominent figure in the all-time Toronto record book, ranking second in doubles (291), third in total bases (2,198) and fifth in RBIs (613) and extra-base hits (425). He won four consecutive Gold Gloves between 1986-89, and represented the club in four All-Star Games.

For all of Fernandez's success with Toronto, it is ironic that his departure laid the groundwork for the franchise's greatest successes. In the biggest deal in Blue Jays history, Fernandez and first baseman Fred McGriff were traded to San Diego for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter -- two players who would play key roles in Toronto's World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.

It was the 1993 title that Fernandez was able to contribute more directly to than just as a memory. After spending the first half of the season with the Mets, Fernandez was traded back to the Jays in June. He batted .306 with 50 RBIs in 94 games, and .326 in 12 postseason games as Toronto won its second consecutive World Series championship.

Of Fernandez's four stints with the Jays, 1993 was the one that means the most to him.

"The second time ... gave me the chance to win my first World Series," he said. "Of course, that's the year that you remember the most, because of the ring."

Fernandez was given the Blue Jays' highest individual honor when he became only the fifth person to be inducted into the team's Level of Excellence in 2001. The Toronto alumnus was proud of his achievement, but said he wished the honor wasn't quite so exclusive.

"I would like to see more of my ex-colleagues and teammates up there as well," Fernandez said. "Unfortunately, you can only put so many people up there, and it is nice to see some of them already in. Perhaps one day we'll see those names as well. That would mean a lot more for all of us."

Some of these former Jays legends may end up in the Level of Excellence yet. Fernandez just has to keep the faith.

Mark Polishuk is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.