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Tony Fernández, whose home run won the 1997 AL pennant for the Cleveland Indians, dies at 57

The five-time All-Star passed away following a stroke, according to reports.
Credit: Mark Duncan/AP
Cleveland Indians batter Tony Fernandez singles to drive in two runs as Boston Red Sox catcher Mike Stanley, left, watches in the eighth inning Saturday, July 19, 1997, in Ceveland. The runs were too little too late as the Red Sox won 6-3.

Tony Fernández, who played 17 years in Major League Baseball and for a time was one of the best infielders in the game, has died at the age of 57.

Héctor Gómez—a respected sports reported from Fernández's native Dominican Republic—first announced Fernández's passing late Saturday night, and MLB later confirmed it. According to Gómez, Fernández suffered a stroke and had been dealing with complications from polycystic kidney disease.

"Tony Fernández left for a better life," the league said in a statement on Twitter (translated from Spanish). "He gave us 17 years as a baseball player in #LasMayores and a lifetime of pure baseball."

For most, Fernández is best known for his four separate stints with the Toronto Blue Jays, during which he held down shortstop (and later third base) with ease and helped the club win the 1993 World Series. He hit .333 with nine RBIs in that Fall Classic, and was eventually elected to the Blue Jays' "Level of Excellence" in 2008.

However, Fernández will forever be remembered in Cleveland for the one season he played with the Indians in 1997. After sitting out the entire previous campaign with an injury, the Tribe signed him to a one-year contract to play second base (Omar Vizquel already had shortstop secured). At 35 years old, he put together a solid season with a .286 average, 11 home runs, and a total zone rating of 9, but it would be in the postseason that Fernández achieved legend status in Northeast Ohio.

The Indians won just 86 games in 1997, but still won the American League Central division and subsequently went on a magical playoff run, and found themselves up three games to two on the Orioles in the ALCS and needing a win in Baltimore to clinch the pennant. Fernández was not scheduled to play that night in Game 6, but during batting practice hit a ball that injured would-be stating second baseman Bip Roberts' finger. Completely by accident, Fernández had inserted himself into the lineup.

As Fernández stepped into the box for his fifth at bat of the game, Cleveland had managed just two hits, but was still somehow in a scoreless tie with the O's in the 11th inning. With two out, Fernández would provide the only real offense of the night, sending Armando Benítez's first pitch to him over the right field wall for a home run. José Mesa would clamp things down in the bottom of the frame, and the Indians celebrated their second trip to the World Series in three years.

Sadly, Fernández's season would not end on a stellar note: Although he would hit .471 in that World Series, an error in the 11th inning of Game 7 cost the Indians an almost-sure double play, and the Florida Marlins would win eventually win it all on Edgar Rentería's single off Charles Nagy. Despite the miscue, the Tribe would never have even made it that far without the efforts of Fernández, and his blast in Baltimore remains one of the biggest hits in franchise history.

Following his stint in Cleveland, Fernández would re-sign with Toronto, and eventually retired following the 2001 season. He also spent time with the San Diego Padres, New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, New York Yankees, and Milwaukee Brewers, and finished his career with a .288 average, five All-Star appearances, and four Gold Glove Awards (all at shortstop).

For his efforts with the Blue Jays, Fernández is enshrined as a member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. He was also an ordained minister, according to his foundation, and is survived by his wife Clara and five children.

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