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Tony Fernandez mulls Indians' near-miss in '97

Tony Fernandez experienced jubilation and despair the last time the Indians made the World Series. Getty Images

It’s the postseason, so Tony Fernandez is watching, at least as time permits between tending to his sports ministry and his charitable foundation for underprivileged children, which he has been running since 1995 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

The former infielder amassed 2,276 hits, five All-Star appearances and four Gold Gloves in a 17-year career. He also had split allegiances in the American League Championship Series given that one team was the Toronto Blue Jays, for whom he played 12 seasons and helped them win a World Series in 1993; he was inducted last week into the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.

The other was the Cleveland Indians, with whom he went to the World Series in 1997, his only season with the team, and whose star shortstop, Francisco Lindor, is a player Fernandez likes watching.

The Indians are back in the World Series for the first time since Fernandez’s appearance, and you’ll likely see him featured in video flashbacks tied to 1997.

It was Fernandez who hit an unlikely home run in the 11th inning of Game 6 of the ALCS against the Baltimore Orioles to win the pennant for the Indians (one of three extra-inning clinching homers in LCS history). It was Fernandez who also drove in the first two runs of Game 7 of the World Series against the Florida Marlins.

And it was Fernandez whose error helped lead to Edgar Renteria’s hit that scored the winning run for the Marlins in the 11th inning, a game in which the Indians were three outs away from winning their first World Series since 1948, but could not.

“We tried our best, we lost the game,” Fernandez said by phone from Santo Domingo on Saturday. “I don’t think that [error] is why we lost the game. Two teams played. One had to win. The other had to lose. I’m glad to see [the Indians] back to get a second opportunity.”

The play of note came with slow-running Bobby Bonilla on first and one out. Fernandez was in his first year playing second base after a long career at shortstop, and had played the position well all year -- he ranked second in the AL in Defensive WAR at the position. Moments before, Fernandez had snuck over to first base to try to double Bonilla off on a popped-up bunt, but Bonilla was safe by a hair.

The next batter, Craig Counsell, grounded a two-strike pitch to the right side. Bonilla didn’t run immediately and screened Fernandez, who came in on the ball, only to have it hit him and roll into right field, allowing Bonilla to go all the way to third. Fernandez had hustled to try to make the play, but could not.

“In retrospect, I should have just waited back on the ball because [Bonilla couldn’t run well],” Fernandez said. "I would have seen the ball better, thrown to first and Jim Thome could have gotten Bonilla in a rundown.”

Fernandez partly atoned later in the inning by making a play to get a force at home, but the next batter was Renteria, whose two-out bases-loaded single ended the series and rendered Fernandez’s attempt at a make-good moot.

“People came to me who were more hurt than myself,” said Fernandez. “One of my best friends was there. He was feeling sorry for me. I said, ‘There’s nothing to be sorry about. It’s part of the game. It happens.'

“I had great support from teammates and the front office,” Fernandez said. “[General manager] John Hart was great. I have nothing but gratitude of that. When I think of people from that team, they were men of character, all of them.”

Fernandez was a man of character, an excellent hitter and an excellent fielder. That offseason he returned to the Blue Jays and hit .321 in 1998. In 1999, he hit .328 with a .427 on-base percentage. At age 37, he had the best offensive season of his career.

“I was the type of athlete and person who doesn’t dwell on the past,” Fernandez said. “Mistakes are important. You learn from them and move forward. Every time an athlete plays, he has a chance to do something to help his club. Some people like to remember negative things. They ask how can you live [with it]? How can you play again?

“How can I play? I did my best. I did everything to that point striving for excellence. I look forward to challenges, and 1998 was a challenge for me. I’m glad I rose to the occasion again.”

Fernandez retired after the 2001 season with a .288 batting average in the regular season and a .327 average in postseason play. He played in eight postseason series and hit .300 or better in six of them. His nine RBIs in the 1993 World Series are the most by a shortstop in the Fall Classic.

Fernandez -- also the answer to the trivia question “Who was the last Yankees everyday shortstop before Derek Jeter?” -- was known as a clutch hitter. He hit .319 with runners in scoring position, excelling both at the beginning of his career (.343 from 1985 to 1988) and at the end of his career (a major-league-best .374 from 1998 to 2001).

His most clutch moment was that pennant-winning home run against Orioles reliever Armando Benitez that made him a Cleveland baseball hero at the time.

“I remember seeing the ball really well. It was in slow motion,” Fernandez said. “Everything was synchronized. The entry of the swing was not an uppercut. I’ve had commentators break down that swing as a perfect swing. First you have to go down, then you go up.”

First you go down, and then you go up. A good way to describe a swing. And a good way to describe how Fernandez has handled his moment of baseball adversity.