By IAN WILSON
He isn’t necessarily the first name that comes to mind when you think about the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets.
But left-handed pitcher Sid Fernandez was a key performer on that title-winning team.
“El Sid” made his first postseason start on Oct. 12th, 1986 at Shea Stadium in New York on his 24th birthday, going head-to-head against Houston Astro ace Mike Scott in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series (NLCS). Fernandez pitched well, striking out five batters in six innings and issuing just one walk, but two of the three hits he surrendered were home runs that resulted in three runs against. Scott, meanwhile, threw a complete game, three hitter for Houston in the 3-1 win for the Astros.
New York ultimately prevailed over Houston in six games, with the final chapter of the series coming in the form of a 16-inning marathon bout that resulted in a 7-6 squeaker for the Mets.
Manager Davey Johnson went with a three-man rotation in the memorable best-of-seven World Series, which shifted Fernandez into a bullpen role. After a shaky ninth-inning appearance in Game 2 against the Boston Red Sox, the Hawaiian excelled as a reliever, firing four shutout innings in a losing cause in Game 5. During the deciding seventh game, Fernandez was called upon for 2.1 innings of service. He struck out four batters, walked one and allowed no hits or runs in his time on the mound, which helped set the stage for the Mets comeback victory in the latter third of the contest. The 8-5 Mets win in Game 7 sealed a classic World Series run that will always be linked to Bill Buckner’s error at first base in the 10th frame of Game 6.
For Fernandez, it marked the culmination of a breakout year for the southpaw, who went 16-6 with a 3.52 earned run average (ERA) and 200 strikeouts in the regular season. The playoffs highlighted what he was capable of as both a starter and a reliever, while earning him a World Series ring.
Years before he made his mark on the Fall Classic, the Honolulu-born hurler was forecasting his talents at ballparks in southern Alberta.
Fernandez was a third-round selection of the Los Angeles Dodgers in June of 1981, and the Kaiser High School student was eager to put his signature on a contract with the organization.
“I feel real good about it. That’s the reason I signed … it’s up to me now to make the major leagues,” Fernandez told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper.
Gail Henley, a special assignments scout for the Dodgers, had this assessment of Fernandez at the time: “(He has) a major league fastball and a good curve, with instruction. He’s also got a good delivery and we think he’s going to get faster. His delivery in total is good and he has a good move to first. He has a good arm. It’s up to Sid to take advantage of it and eventually make it to the majors.”
The first stop of his minor-league journey was with the rookie-level Lethbridge Dodgers of the Pioneer League. And despite the distance from home, Fernandez’s mother Sheila was confident her son would adjust to his new surroundings.
“As a mother, I couldn’t ask for anything better. I know Sid will fit in. He’s a good kid who gets along well with everybody,” Sheila told the Star-Bulletin.
“Homesick? I’m pretty sure he’ll get used to that. He’s been away a lot since his Little League days up to last year with the American Legion.”
After shedding a few pounds and getting his arm in shape in the off-season, Fernandez had an instant impact on the Pioneer League circuit.
Held to four innings of work in his first start against manager Joe Maddon and the Idaho Falls Angels, Fernandez struck out seven batters and allowed just one hit and one run during his Canada Day debut in Lethbridge.
A follow-up no-decision, against the Calgary Expos, was another four-frame outing. Fernandez K’ed five opponents, while giving up five hits and two earned runs.
Fernandez let loose during a 17-1 July victory over the Angels – registering seven scoreless innings, 12 Ks, three hits, and one walk in the win.
Yet another tilt against Idaho Falls on July 18th, witnessed by 1,592 fans at Henderson Stadium, resulted in Fernandez’s first complete game as a pro. He rang up 13 batters in that 8-3 win over the Angels and improved to 2-0 on the year.
It didn’t take long for the 6-foot-1, 220-pound pitcher to find another gear in his introductory campaign of professional baseball. Sports writers in the United States were also learning what Lethbridge scribes discovered after just a few looks at Fernandez.
“Dodger starter Sid Fernandez, a left-hander with a Fernando Valenzuela-like physique, had a no hitter going through 4.1 innings and wound up allowing just three hits in 6.1 innings. His only problem was control; he walked six and hit a batter,” wrote Great Falls Tribune reporter Phil Smith, following a 6-0 Giants loss to Lethbridge at Legion Field.
“Fernandez, mixing a blazing fastball with an effective curve, was virtually untouchable. The Giants didn’t even get one fair ball off him until the third inning.”
The lefty was also generating headlines in his home state, where family and friends were tracking his progress.
“This will come as no surprise to anyone who has stood in the batter’s box and tried to see Sid Fernandez’s fastball … Fernandez practically has the rookie Pioneer League eating out of his hand,” stated sports editor Rick Woodson in the July 29th edition of the Honolulu Advertiser.
“Fernandez is doing a great imitation of Sandy Koufax … despite being used conservatively so he doesn’t leave his arm – and his fastball – in some place like Medicine Hat.”
In speaking with Woodson, Fernandez said the baseball was nowhere near as difficult as getting from place to place.
“The traveling is the toughest part,” said Fernandez from Butte, Montana before taking the ball for a matchup against the Copper Kings.
“The shortest bus ride we have is two-and-a-half hours, and the longest is eleven hours – to Idaho Falls. It’s hard to sleep on a bus. People in Hawaii were telling me there would be extremely tough hitters, but I haven’t seen many tough hitters in this league.”
Lethbridge manager Gary LaRocque agreed with Fernandez about the bus rides.
“It’s a tough adjustment,” said LaRocque. “We get off a bus after a six-hour ride and then ask Sid, or somebody else, to go out and perform.”
Whatever competition Fernandez lacked in the batter’s box, he did encounter rivals on the mound. The month of August brought games against Medicine Hat that forced him to be at his best.
Despite tossing seven innings of five-hit baseball against the Blue Jays on Aug. 5th, Fernandez was tagged with his first loss of the season. A crowd of 2,389 at Henderson Stadium were treated to the pitching duel between Fernandez and another promising lefty, John Cerutti. Fernandez collected more Ks, with 11, but Cerutti struck out nine and went the distance for Medicine Hat. The result was a 2-0 win for the Blue Jays and a one-hitter for Cerutti.
“I was hitting spots,” Cerutti told Lethbridge Herald reporter Dave Sulz after the game.
“I had a few walks, but when I needed a good pitch, I got it where I wanted it. And any curveball was breaking pretty consistently.”
The two future Major League Baseball (MLB) pitchers renewed acquaintances less than a week later at Athletic Park in Medicine Hat.
Fernandez responded with 18 strikeouts over 8.1 innings, while Cerutti punched out eight batters in another complete game effort that ended with Lethbridge claiming a 4-2 victory.
It was a riveting contest, in front of 885 paying customers, that began with Cerutti striking out the first two batters he faced. Following a walk, Medicine Hat first baseman Craig Fryman lost a throw that was headed his way in the sun, which put two runners on. Another future MLBer, Gilberto Reyes, blasted a three-run shot to centre field that proved decisive.
“Actually, I didn’t think it was going out when I first saw it – but at the last second, I thought, ‘Holy Geez …'” recounted Cerutti in the Medicine Hat News.
The Jays mounted a comeback effort in the ninth inning by loading the bases, but a double play ended the game and preserved the victory for Fernandez.
His rivalry with Cerutti – who finished the 1981 season with an 8-4 record, a 3.03 ERA, five complete games, two shutouts and 120 strikeouts in 107 innings – only fueled Fernandez down the stretch.
In Helena, Fernandez pitched a two-hit, 21-strikeout game against the Phillies.
That was followed by an 11-inning, 18 K masterpiece against the visiting Great Falls Giants. It was his final start for the Lethbridge Dodgers, and perhaps his finest. Fernandez, however, was not the pitcher of record in the 1-0 triumph because the Dodgers didn’t score the winning run until the 12th inning.
“I feel this is the best game I’ve pitched all year,” said Fernandez in the Lethbridge Herald.
“My pitches were down and my breaking stuff was working good. It’s unfortunate that there was no decision, but we won the game. That’s the main thing.”
When asked if he was tired after throwing 140 pitches by the 11th inning, Fernandez replied: “Not at all … I felt good.”
Fernandez was also asked about his proclivity for striking batters out.
“I just try to get the out, the strikeouts just come. On two strikes, if I feel I need a strikeout, I try to give it a little extra,” he said.
There was no denying the dominance of Fernandez in the Pioneer League. He made 11 starts and posted 128 Ks in 76 innings for the Lethbridge Dodgers. He finished the year with a 5-1 record, 1.54 ERA and two complete games. In addition, he was only tagged for one home run. Not bad for an 18-year-old in his first season in the minors.
The accolades poured in. Fernandez was declared a Pioneer League All-Star and the team’s most outstanding pitcher. He was also named to the Topps Chewing Gum and All-America Baseball News rookie all-star teams.
While the Dodgers failed to qualify for the postseason, they went 43-27 and their overall attendance of 37,361 established a new club record at the turnstiles.
“It was one of the best seasons ever,” proclaimed franchise president Reno Lizzi in the Lethbridge Herald.
Lizzi also singled out Fernandez when discussing the team’s success.
“The Dodgers feel that in maybe two or three years, Sid will be pitching in the major leagues,” he said.
“Ben Wade (Dodger director of scouting) said he feels it will be another ten years before you see anyone like Sid again.”
Wade was also quoted in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin as saying Fernandez was, “the best left-handed pitcher I ever saw.”
That same October article by assistant sports editor Rod Ohira included heaps of praise from personnel within the organization.
“(Longtime Dodger pitching coach) Red Adams made the first statement on Fernandez. Red said he could be another Koufax,” noted Guy Wellman, the instructional league manager for the Dodgers.
Minor league pitching instructor Larry Sherry dubbed Fernandez a “definite blue-chipper,” and also saw shades of Koufax in his game.
“It’s in the delivery,” said Sherry. “They both have a deceptive motion that makes the ball look faster. Sid will get to the stage where he’s going to throw the ball faster (it was in the low 90s in instructional play) and get more consistent with his pitches.”
Added Sherry: “We don’t like to rush people but this guy could jump from Double-A to Triple-A to the Big Leagues real quick.”
Fernandez was encouraged by the positive feedback, but also aware that he had a lot of work to do to make it to the majors.
“It gives me a lot of confidence to know they think so much of me,” he told the Star-Bulletin.
“All of this (success) kind of surprised me. The Pioneer League is pretty tough competition but I tried to learn as much as I could by listening and watching others … pro ball is a mental game. You got to think about what you’re doing … study hitters all the time, even when you’re not pitching.”
The studying paid off for Fernandez, who shot up to Triple-A in 1982. His 13-4 record, 2.82 ERA and 209 Ks garnered him the Double-A Texas League’s Pitcher of the Year title and a rare pitching triple crown in 1983, the same year he made his MLB debut for Los Angeles.
It looked as though the comparisons to Fernando Valenzuela and Sandy Koufax might not be too far-fetched. But Fernandez, who battled weight problems during his time in the Dodgers system, was left off the postseason roster. After the Phillies eliminated the Dodgers in the NLCS, Los Angeles dealt him to the Mets, along with infielder Ross Jones, in exchange for Carlos Diaz and Bob Bailor.
Fernandez played 10 of his 16 MLB seasons in New York and it was with the Mets that he was a two-time All-Star and a World Series champ.
Baseball fans in Lethbridge, Alberta – the other L.A. – were among those least surprised to see Fernandez thrive in the postseason.