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."
At times Fernandez has exhibited a strong work ethic, and he's obsessive about preparing for games, but he doesn't like anyone telling him what to do and clashed with a few coaches in San Diego. In the locker room Fernandez is a player who is inclined to keep to himself, more likely to spend his time reading the Bible than mixing with teammates.
All of this doesn't make him a bad guy, just the odd man out.
That's the Breaks
Look for the Braves to release injured leftfielder Ron Gant by March 15 so that they'll be obligated to pay him only about one sixth of his $5.5 million salary. Gant broke his right leg in a motorbike accident on Feb. 3, a week after signing the largest single-season contract in baseball history.
Atlanta considered trading Gant in the off-season, and it was unlikely that the Braves would have re-signed him when he became a free agent after the 1994 season. Now they believe he will not be ready to play until the All-Star break, so they might act sooner rather than later to trim their bulging payroll.
Gant, who was a vital part of the Braves' NL West title drive last season, wound up hitting 36 home runs and driving in 117 runs after starting slowly. He says his leg is progressing well, and he believes he could be back in the lineup as early as May.
In the meantime he is prepared for the worst. "If they release me, I'll just hit 30 homers for the team I'm with," he says. "That would be a big mistake on the Braves' part, but what they do depends on how much they want to win."
In Gant's absence three rookies are bidding for his job: Ryan Klesko, a slugging first baseman who switched to the outfield last year at Triple A Richmond; Tony Tarasco, who hit .330 at Richmond and is probably Atlanta's most skilled outfielder; and Chipper Jones, a switch-hitting shortstop who is among the best prospects in baseball and could learn to play left.
Out of Focus
As a result of the divisional realignment, the Mariners and the Rangers look like cofavorites to win the new American League West. But you have to wonder how interested some of the Texas players, beginning with catcher Pudge Rodriguez, are in winning. Following a year in which he was criticized by teammates and management for his pitch selection and handling of the staff, Rodriguez, 22, arrived at spring training three days after the appointed date for pitchers and catchers.
It was important that he be there on time because he was the only catcher on the 40-man roster—there's not a solid backup candidate in sight—and there were four key new pitchers in camp, all of whom he has to become familiar with. What's more, Rodriguez had been ripped by his winter league manager, former major league receiver Rick Dempsey, for loafing and showing up late when he bothered to show up at all.
The attitude and play of the catcher sets the tone for a team, and Ranger manager Kevin Kennedy, once a catcher himself, was seething over Rodriguez's delayed arrival. Kennedy also wasn't happy that star leftfielder Juan Gonzalez, who was given a seven-year, $45.45 million contract in the off-season, said he wouldn't report until March 1 (a week later than the rest of the squad), and that shortstop Manny Lee, who reported 17 days late from the Dominican Republic last year, would miss at least the first eight workouts because of visa problems.
The Name GGame
When the Braves released catcher Greg Olson last November and then signed former Oriole reliever Gregg Olson on Feb. 8, they exacerbated the cases of mistaken identity already plaguing this twosome. "I've gotten six of his baseball cards to sign and one of his 1099 forms—I sent that back right away," says Gregg of mail intended for Greg, who's now with the Mets. "The guys here say they won't call me Olie [the nickname both players are known by]. I don't know what they're going to call me. I don't answer to Gregg."