Along with his peculiar style when throwing and looking to the sky, Fernando Valenzuela captivated the Major Leagues and unleashed the famous “Fernandomania” that is still remembered by baseball fans after four decades.
“Toro” Valenzuela, from Sonora, Mexico, was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers in July 1979, and a year later debuted in the majors at the end of the season leaving a pleasant impression with a 2-0 ledger and a save in 10 games.
However, imagine what would happen in 1981 and its lasting impression 40 years later. Nowadays when we refer to Valenzuela, it is enough to simply say “Fernando” as you are immediately transported to an unforgettable era that he began in an unexpected and eventful way.
- Manu Ginobili, the last great NBA star from Argentina
- Yadier Molina, dean of the Puerto Rican catchers
- Yulimar Rojas jumps out as Venezuela’s very own Wonder Woman
Jerry Reuss was supposed to be the starter on Opening Day in 1981, but the southpaw injured his leg the day before and Dodgers manager Tom LaSorda surprised everyone by giving the ball to the 20-year-old Mexican rookie against the Houston Astros.
With incredible poise and nerves of steel, Valenzuela responded with a pitching gem by shutting out the Astros 2-0, surrendering just five hits and two walks, and that’s when the “Fernandomania” began.
“It’s a memory I always have, of saying he (LaSorda) gave me this opportunity, I have to take advantage of it,'” Valenzuela recalled in an interview with MLB.com.
In his first eight starts he was 8-0, with seven complete games, including five shutouts and gave up just four earned runs in 72 innings, becoming an instant celebrity in Los Angeles, particularly among the Mexican population of the city, while grabbing baseball headlines around the Nation.
Everyone was talking about the Mexican pitcher who seemed to be much more than 20 years old and when he pitched looked up at the sky just before he released the ball to the plate.
“I was excited,” Valenzuela recalled in the book “Brothers in Arms: Koufax, Kershaw and the extraordinary tradition of Dodgers pitching” written by Jon Weisman. “It was good, but difficult at the same time.
“On the field, it was fine. Off the field, after the games, sometimes people or the media didn’t understand, they wanted the interview immediately, and I had to work, I had to be with the team. At that time, that was the difficult part, but when I went out on the field, it was exciting, because I knew what I had to do. I was very confident in my repertoire.”
Valenzuela finished the season, which was stopped from June 12 to July 31 due to a player strike, with a 13-7 record and an ERA of 2.48. He was also the strikeout leader (180), completed games (11), shutouts (8) and innings pitched (192.1). He also went 3-1 in the postseason that saw the Dodgers become World Series champions.
His performance was so spectacular that he won the Rookie of the Year award and became the only rookie to win the Cy Young award.
A ‘before and after’ of “Fernandomanía”
he arrival of the Mexican propelled the Dodgers onto the field of play, but also had an impact off the diamond, as Mexican actor Edward James Olmos recently recalled during a tribute to Valenzuela as part of the Hispanic Heritage Month.
It marked a kind of “before and after” in the relationship that until 1980 was broken between Mexicans, Latinos and the franchise after the construction of the stadium, located in the Chávez Ravine neighborhood. The early 60s generated many conflicts since hundreds of people of Mexican and Latino descent were relocated.
“If it weren’t for you, none of that would have happened the way it did here. Latinos had a very difficult time because of this stage. Because this stadium took their homes…several Latinos and Mexicans who were here in Chávez Ravine. The day you came and pitched here for the first time, from that moment on, everything changed, not only for Mexicans, but for all cultures. This man brought together all religions and all cultures. Thank you very much, Fernando ”, said James Olmos.
A great career
Supported by his famous screwball or corkscrew pitch, Valenzuela had 141 wins and 116 losses in his 11-year career with the Dodgers (1980-1990). He was named to the All-Star Game six times, won 20 games or more in one season (1986), and on June 29, 1990, he threw a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals, finishing the season 13-13 with an ERA. of 4.59 in 33 starts.
Valenzuela’s era in Los Angeles came to an end when the team released him after a discreet spring training in 1991. There began a period of instability in his career in which he went through six organizations (California, Detroit -spring training- , Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Diego, St. Louis) before finishing his career with a record of 173-153 and 3.54 ERA.
Valenzuela, however, is always fondly and nostalgically remembered for his exploits with the Dodgers and the “Fernandomania.” Since his days with the organization ended, no other player has worn his number 34 out of respect for the famous “Bull” and it will only be a matter of time before the franchise decides to officially retire the number that symbolizes an unforgettable era in the history of Los Angeles and the majors on and off the field.
“The fact that he was Mexican and that he was so good and so humble in such an incredible career was inspiring,” said Mexican-American comedian George Lopez during a recent interview with MLB.com.
“He did not give us an injection in the arm, he gave us an injection in the heart because he gave us someone to love forever. Especially in Los Angeles, this guy still inspires us. He still moves the needle. He changed our lives, “he added.