The best shortstop in baseball was born and raised behind the Bermudez scoreboard in right centerfield of Vargas Stadium. Casa de Cabeza, as it has come to be known, is a simple cement house that until recently was painted Blue Jay blue. It sits on the corner of F and N streets and is so close to the ballpark that Pirates catcher Tony Pena once hit a home run against one of the walls. In the sitting room, underneath an action picture of her brother, sits one of Cabeza's four sisters (he also has six brothers, including his twin). "Tony was a little child with a big head," says his sister Gloria. "He never said anything about the baseball, but he was always practicing it."
Fernandez lives in Santo Domingo now with his wife, Clara, and 19-month-old son, Joel. Both his parents have died, his mother only last winter. When Tony says, "My father was English and my mother was French," he is tracing their descent back to the days of slavery on the island. "My father was a chief in the sugarcane fields, a wonderful man, the kind of man I would like to be. I think he gave me his heart. He was very strong, but he never beat me. My mother, whom I also loved, worked as a vendor. She would hit me, especially if I missed Sunday school to play baseball."
Vargas Stadium is named for Tetelo Vargas, a great ballplayer who led the Dominican League in hitting when he was 50 years old. As a small boy, Tony worked on the grounds crew and in the clubhouse there. He would climb over the fence in the morning and help fix the field or shine shoes, but when somebody brought out a bat and ball, he was right there with the bigger players, trying to steal time at shortstop. He would also be stealing the moves of shortstops like Griffin, Frias and Norman.
Griffin, who is five years older than Fernandez, recalls, "He was always around, with the bad knee, taking infield. Then one day he was better than the rest. I remember Ray Knight, who played winter ball here, came up to me after Tony had grown up and said, 'Is that really Cabeza?' "
Yes it was. When Fernandez was 15, Epy Guerrero had helped the family to arrange and pay for an operation on the youngster's right knee—a chipped bone had made it painful for him to run. Actually, Guerrero had been watching Fernandez for years, trying to entice him to Santo Domingo, but Tony did not want to leave home. "Before the operation he could run 60 yards in only 7.3 seconds," says Epy. "Now he runs it in 6.5 seconds." Soon after the surgery, Guerrero signed Fernandez to a Blue Jays contract, and to this day the two remain very close.
Fernandez rose quickly through the Toronto farm system. His ascent was so swift that he presented the Jays with a major problem: What do they do with Griffin and Fernandez? They solved that by trading Griffin to the A's after the '84 season.
If there is anyone out there who thinks Joaquin Andujar is the typical Dominican ballplayer, consider that Fernandez is a Pentecostal Christian who spends much of the off-season doing missionary work. He is quiet and thoughtful, and he is sheepish about his new status. He reads the Bible, of course, but also Shakespeare and Cervantes. "Baseball was fun for me when I was growing up, and even in Class A ball, I felt the joy. But as I got closer to the majors, I felt more materialistic, more concerned with things like money and Porsches. I almost quit in Syracuse. But that's when I found Christ. Now I'm playing with joy again. Still, I would quit tomorrow if that is what I thought the Lord wanted me to do."
Once he was a skinny little kid who climbed over the wall to go to work and learn to play. Later, when his winter league team, Licey, came to San Pedro to play the Estrellas, Cabeza jumped back over the wall in his uniform to visit his family.
Griffin, too, remembers going over the top, but he would do that to get in to see the games. "We would wait for the national anthem to start playing, so the policemen would have to stand at attention, and then we would climb up and down the light tower." He was from the sugar town of Consuelo, about two miles up the road from the stadium. "I used to skip school to play ball, and my mother, Mary, would beat me with a stick if she found out. Rico Carty was my hero. He came from Consuelo, and I'll never forget what a thrill it was to play with him, first in Cleveland and then in Toronto."
As befits the dean of Dominican shortstops, Griffin lives in a magnificent house near the university in San Pedro, right next door to Andujar's big house. Griffin's house was recently featured in a Dominican magazine, and it has everything. The floor of the hallway leading from the master bedroom to the living room is tiled in clay blocks forming the letter G. Griffin lives here with his wife, Noris, daughter, Rosemary, and occasionally, his mother, who thinks the house is too big. To look at Mary Griffin, a wisp of a woman, one cannot imagine her whaling away at a future major leaguer.