As of last weekend Marlins Kurt Abbott and Mario Diaz, Mets Tim Bogar and Luis Rivera, Ranger Manny Lee, Twin Pat Meares and Blue Jay Dick Schofield, all marginal major leaguers, were still candidates to start the season at shortstop for their respective teams. Meanwhile, 31-year-old Tony Fernandez, a lifetime .285 hitter, one of the highest-rated fielders among shortstops in major league history and a star of the 1993 postseason, was at home in the Dominican Republic—out of work.
"Tony's bummed out," says Bruce Weinstein, Fernandez's new agent. "He's in great shape, he wants to play, but he's out in the cold."
For that, Fernandez can lay most of the blame on his agents and himself. While his contribution to the Blue Jays' run to the 1993 world championship was significant, it was obviously not enough to erase the memory of his role in the pathetic decline of the Mets, with whom he started last season, or to justify the salary increase demanded in the off-season by his previous representatives, the Davimos Group.
After the World Series, Fernandez's negotiators asked Toronto for a three-year contract worth about $9 million. The Blue Jays rejected those terms as well as a follow-up bid of $4 million for one year, which would have given Fernandez a $1.7 million raise over his 1993 salary. Toronto was put off by such big numbers, and since in Alex Gonzalez it had one of baseball's top prospects at short, it didn't resign Fernandez.
When no solid offers had been tendered by any other team by early February, Fernandez left Davimos and hired Weinstein, who spoke with the Yankees and the Rangers, neither of whom had enough money left in their budgets to sign Fernandez. "Tony's pride is unbelievable," Weinstein says. "He feels he's at the top of his game, and he's not going to take less than what he made last season. He says he'll sit out the year. He should be more giving, but I understand his situation."
With so many other overpriced players holding jobs, why doesn't anyone want a guy with Fernandez's credentials?
"Over the years there have probably been times when Tony has given you the impression that he doesn't come to play every night," says Toronto general manager Pat Gillick. "It's hard to give a guy $9 million for three years when you don't know which Tony is going to show up."
The Mets, who acquired Fernandez from the Padres after the 1992 season, weren't happy with the one who showed up in New York. He hit only .225 in 48 games and infuriated manager Dallas Green by, among other things, shying away from contact around second base. On June 11 the Mets traded Fernandez to the Blue Jays, for whom he hit .306—and played hard—in 94 games. Weinstein says more than one general manager has told him the only team Fernandez can be happy playing for is Toronto, where he also spent his first seven big league seasons.
Gillick credits Blue Jay manager Cito Gaston for getting the most out of Fernandez, saying, "One-on-one with players, Cito is one of the best."