With his peculiar style of throwing and looking up at the sky, Fernando Valenzuela captivated the major leagues and unleashed the famous “Fernandomania” that is still remembered by baseball even though four decades have passed.
The so-called “Toro” Valenzuela, from Sonora, Mexico, was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers in July 1979, and a year later had his debut at the end of the regular season and made a good impression by getting a 2-0 mark and a save in 10 games.
However, no one would have imagined what would happen in 1981.
Jerry Reuss was supposed to start on Opening Day, but the left-hander hurt his leg the day before and Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda surprised everyone by opening with the 20-year-old Mexican rookie against the Houston Astros.
With an incredible poise and nerves of steel, Valenzuela responded with a pitching jewel by shutting out the Astros 2-0, yielding just five hits and two walks, and that’s when the so-called “Fernandomania” began.
In his first eight starts he went 8-0, with seven complete games, including five shut outs, yielding just four runs in 72 innings, becoming an instant celebrity in Los Angeles, particularly among the Mexican population in that city, as well as making headlines across the country.
Everyone was talking about the Mexican pitcher who played way beyond the level of his 20 years and whose signature move was looking up at the sky just before letting the ball loose towards the plate .
“I was excited,” Valenzuela recalled in the book “Brothers in Arms: Koufax, Kershaw and the Extraordinary Dodgers Pitcher Tradition” written by Jon Weisman. “It was good, but difficult at the same time.”
“On the mound, everything was fine. Off the field, and after games, sometimes people… the media, didn’t understand, they wanted the interview right away, and I had to work, I had to be with the team. At the time, that was the hard part, but when I went out on the field, it was exciting, because I knew what I had to do. I had a lot of confidence in my repertoire.”
Valenzuela finished the 1981 season, which was halted between June 12 and July 31 due to a player’s strike, 13-7 and with a 2.48 run average, and was a strikeout leader (180), complete games (11), shut outs (8) and pitched innings (192.1). He also had a 3–1 postseason record that as the Dodgers became World Series champions.
His performance was so spectacular that he won the Rookie of the Year award and became the only rookie to win a Cy Young Award.
Supported by his famous screwball, Valenzuela compiled 141 wins with 116 losses in his 11-year career with the Dodgers (1980-1990). He was named to the All-Star Game six times, won a league leading 21 games in 1986, and on June 29, 1990 pitched a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals, finishing the campaign at 13-13 and a 4.59 ERA in 33 openings.
Valenzuela’s era in Los Angeles came to an end when the team set him free after 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 ERA’s 173–153 and 3.54 mark.
Valenzuela, however, is always remembered with love and nostalgia for his exploits with the Dodgers and “Fernandomania“. Since finishing with the organization, no other player has worn number 34 out of respect for the famous “Toro” and it will only be a matter of time before the number is officially retired to recognize an unforgettable era in the history of Los Angeles and the Majors.