In Memoriam: Remembering ex-Blue Jays players and coaches that passed away in 2020

By Kevin Glew

Cooperstowners in Canada

It’s been a tough year, a really tough year.

Over 340,000 Americans and more than 15,000 Canadians have died from the coronavirus (COVID-19) and it hasn’t spared former big leaguers. Sadly, Tom Seaver, Jay Johnstone, Rick Baldwin and Lindy McDaniel were among those who lost their battle with the virus.

Seven National Baseball Hall of Fame inductees – including the aforementioned Seaver and ex-Toronto Blue Jay Phil Niekro – have died in 2020. That’s more than any other year, according to Sam Gazdziak of the excellent RIP Baseball blog.

And as of December 10, Gazdziak wrote that 107 former big leaguers had died in 2020. That’s the highest number in 40 years.

Sadly, several former Blue Jays players and coaches are among those that have passed away in 2020. And as this challenging year mercifully draws to an end, let’s take a moment to remember them.

Tony Fernandez, former shortstop, February 16, age 57

Fernandez, who holds the Blue Jays’ franchise record for most hits (1,583), passed away on February 16 at the age of 57. Signed by the Blue Jays in 1979, he played 12 memorable seasons in Toronto and established himself as one of the best all-around shortstops in the majors. While with the Blue Jays, he led the club in batting average twice (1986-87) and hits three times (1986, 1988, 1990) and was also a three-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove Award winner. He also secured a World Series ring in 1993, while topping Blue Jays’ batters in RBIs (9) during the Fall Classic. For his efforts, he was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008. Fernandez had been fighting Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD) for a few years. PKD is a genetic disorder in which cyst clusters grow in the kidneys, causing the kidneys to enlarge and stop functioning over time.

You can read my full obituary about him here.

Damaso Garcia, former second baseman, April 15, age 63

Signed by the New York Yankees as an amateur free agent in 1975, Garcia played parts of two seasons with the big league Bombers before being dealt to the Blue Jays on November 1, 1979. Garcia became the Blue Jays’ starting second baseman in 1980 and batted .278 with 151 hits in 140 games. Over the next six seasons, he became a staple at the top of the Blue Jays’ lineup and formed one of the league’s best double-play combinations with Fernandez. During his tenure with the Blue Jays, he batted over .300 in two seasons, won a Silver Slugger Award in 1982 and was selected to two American League All-Star teams (1984 and 1985). Garcia had reportedly been in deteriorating health in recent years. In 1991, he underwent surgery for a malignant brain tumor. The cancer and after-effects of the surgery impacted his mobility and speech.

You can read my full obituary about him here.

Rich Hacker, former third base coach, April 22, age 72

Canadian baseball fans will best remember Hacker as the Blue Jays’ third base coach from 1991 to 1993. He was a highly respected coach and mentor on the Blue Jays’ three consecutive division-winning squads (1991-93) and two World Championship teams (1992, 1993). Hacker was one of the top third base coaches in the American League when he was involved in a serious car accident on the Martin Luther King Bridge in St. Louis that rendered him unable to return to his field duties. The Blue Jays kept him on staff in an off-field role and named Nick Leyva his replacement. In one of the 1993 season’s most moving moments, Hacker returned to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. The Belleville, Ill., native died from complications from cancer.

You can read my full obituary about him here.

Tim Kuziomko, former infield prospect with Medicine Hat Blue Jays, May 4, age 57

Photo: Danny Gallagher

Signed as an amateur free agent by the Blue Jays in 1982, this Montreal native played third base and batted a combined .211 in 76 games in two seasons with the Medicine Hat Blue Jays (Rookie Ball). He had lived in Newmarket, Ont., in recent years and died from COVID-19.

You can read Danny Gallagher’s full obituary about him here.

Tom Goffena, Blue Jays’ first-ever amateur draft pick, June 11, age 61

Toronto Blue Jays’ first-ever draft pick, Tom Goffena, and his wife, Karen, visited the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont., in 2008. Photo: Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame

Goffena was a promising high school shortstop in his hometown of Sidney, Ohio when the Blue Jays selected him 25th overall in the 1977 draft – the first pick in the franchise’s history. With a young slugger named Jesse Barfield as one of his road roommates, Goffena hit a respectable .255 in his first pro season in low-A Utica, earning a promotion to class-A Dunedin the following campaign. But in 1978 he suffered a serious back injury that cut his season short. After an extensive rehab program, he returned to Dunedin in 1979, but was still experiencing back pain and he noticed that he had lost significant speed. He underwent back surgery that year and when he returned the following spring he suffered a hamstring injury and felt he could no longer compete at an elite level and asked for his release. He returned to Sidney, Ohio, where he served as a golf pro for a short stint, before spending 32 years working for the Shelby County Highway Department as a road and bridge supervisor. He had been battling colon cancer for the past 10 years.

You can read my full obituary of him here.

Denis Menke, former first base coach, December 1, age 80

Menke was the Blue Jays’ first base and infield coach in 1980 and 1981, but prior to that he was the manager of the club’s class-A affiliate in Dunedin in 1978 and 1979. He also managed the Blue Jays’ Instructional League teams in those same years. Before his coaching career, Menke had a successful playing career. Signed by the Milwaukee Braves in 1958, the 6-foot, 185-pound infielder rose through the club’s ranks and played two seasons for their affiliates in Canada. In 1961, he batted .293, posted a .415 on-base percentage (OBP) and belted 15 home runs in 137 games for the triple-A Vancouver Mounties. The following year, he hit .270 with 10 homers and a .387 OBP in 79 contests with the triple-A Toronto Maple Leafs. He graduated to the big leagues in 1962 and proceeded to bat .250 and belt 101 home runs in parts of 13 seasons. After coaching for the Blue Jays, Menke later become the Phillies’ hitting coach and he was in that position in 1993 when they faced off against the Blue Jays in the World Series.

You can read my full obituary about him here.

Phil Niekro, pitcher, December 26, age 81

Niekro was the first former Blue Jays player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame when he was honoured in 1997. When the Blue Jays acquired Niekro from the last-place Cleveland Indians on August 9, 1987, the durable knuckleballer was 48 years old and had already accumulated 318 big league wins and more than 3,000 strikeouts in parts of 24 seasons. What he hadn’t done was pitch in the World Series, which was something he hoped to accomplish with the Blue Jays who were battling the Detroit Tigers for top spot in the American League East. Unfortunately it was not to be. Niekro posted an 0-2 record and an 8.25 ERA in three starts for the Blue Jays before he was released. To his credit, the classy right-hander never forgot about his brief tenure with the Canadian club. He even thanked the Blue Jays in his Hall of Fame speech.

You can read my full article about Niekro’s short tenure with the Blue Jays here.

4 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Remembering ex-Blue Jays players and coaches that passed away in 2020

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  1. Kevin, thank you for the summary of each person. It’s so good to read about their great careers. Each and everyone of them will be missed greatly by their families, friends and fans.

  2. Thanks for a year end summary of ex-Blue Jays who passed away during 2020. They will all be missed by their families and fans.. Let 2021 be a better year.

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