FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Jorge Polanco did not know Tony Fernandez personally and only met him once in a group. Yet, Tony’s impact on the baseball-playing youth of San Pedro de Macoris on the Dominican Republic’s southeastern coast was such that on Monday, before the Twins’ first full workout, Polanco said:
“Tony Fernandez was my idol.’’
Fernandez died on Sunday at 57, after two years of dealing with kidney disease. He also suffered a stroke and was taken off life support at a hospital in the Miami area.
“Tony was a great player and a great person,’’ Miguel Sano said Monday. “He was the reason all of us San Pedro kids wanted to play shortstop.’’
Even a bigger kid such a yourself? “I was not that big then, but yes,’’ Sano said. “He would come back after the season and work with young players, at an academy.
“He brought hundreds and hundreds of kids to baseball. He was proud of that, proud of his town.’’
Epy Guerrero was the legendary Blue Jays’ scout who signed Fernandez as he was turning 17 years old in 1979. Thirty years later, Epy’s son Fred signed Sano and Polanco from San Pedro de Marcoris.
They were two-thirds of the 2009 international market bonanza for then-GM Bill Smith that includes Germany’s Max Kepler.
Fred Guerrero now runs Latin American scouting for the Twins. Rumor has it, they do all that’s possible to keep Guerrero in their employ, as other organizations attempt to poach him.
Tony Fernandez reached the big leagues with Toronto in September 1983. So many talented youngsters tried to follow in his cleat marks that San Pedro de Macoris became known as the “Cradle of Shortstops’’ for a time.
Manny Alexander told the Baltimore Sun: “I watched Tony Fernandez make it to the major leagues. I always wanted to play shortstop since then. I thought maybe one day I can be like him.’’
Alexander said this in 1995, and a quarter-century later, Polanco, the American League’s incumbent All-Star shortstop, was calling Fernandez his “idol.’’
That gives you a snapshot of the lasting power of the Fernandez’ legend in San Pedro de Macoris.
Bill Evers, the Twins’ veteran coach, was asked if he had encountered Fernandez in his long tenure in the minors.
“My only connection to Tony is that I was the manager who sent Derek Jeter, as a 20-year-old, to replace him with the Yankees when Tony was injured in 1995,’’ Evers said. “I told Derek, ‘You’re coming back when Fernandez gets healthy,’ and that’s what happened.
“The Yankees also saw enough to know Derek was their shortstop for 1996, so Tony had to move.’’
The Yankees plan for 1996 was to have Jeter at shortstop and Pat Kelly at second base, with Fernandez as the backup to both. Then, Fernandez dived for a ball at second base in an exhibition and fractured his right elbow. He missed the entire season.
“That was the second time Fernandez broke that elbow,’’ said Dan Gladden, championship leftfielder turned 20-year radio broadcaster for the Twins. “Bill Madlock was with the Tigers and took Tony out with a slide in late September 1987. He landed on a wooden barrier they had separating the turf and grass and fractured his elbow.
“The Blue Jays were a couple of games in front of the Tigers in the [American League] East. Tony missed the rest of the season and the Tigers passed them on the last weekend.
“If Fernandez was in the lineup for those last eight, nine games of the season, we probably would have wound up playing the Blue Jays, not the Tigers, in the ALCS.’’
The younger, more athletic Twins played five tremendous games to upset the 98-win Tigers 4-1, then won a first World Series.
“Tony was gone [in San Diego] by the time we beat the Blue Jays in the ALCS in 1991,’’ Gladden said. “I only knew him as an opponent, but as a shortstop, he was one of the best in those Toronto years.’’