Only a few weeks ago former Los Angeles Dodgers pitching phenom Fernando Valenzuela was back in the news. It wasn’t major headline news, but notable news nonetheless in that it was a career achievement reward for the one-time southpaw sensation who or a time did create larger type headlines than presidents.
Valenzuela was honored with induction into the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame during the Caribbean Series in Hemosillo, Mexico. It is interesting to note that Valenzuela’s selection data specifically referred to his accomplishments not only in the United States, but in the Mexican League, where he continued to pitch long after his name faded from the limelight in this country.
Fernando is 52 now, but most of us remember him as an innocent 20-year-old rookie in 1981 when the Mexican lad took this country by storm with his dominating pitching, youthful enthusiasm, pleasant demeanor and unique arrival in the big leagues. Valenzuela had other distinguishing characteristics, too. He was portly, standing 5-foot-11 while weighing 180 pounds, with a noticeable belly, and when he rocked back on the mound in his motion before firing to the plate he seemed to be glancing heavenward as his eyes rolled back in his head.
Thirty-two years ago, American baseball was not nearly as cosmopolitan as it is now. There were Latin American stars, but the number of them was much smaller. Countries from other regions of the world were not even represented in the U.S., even if some players had come and gone from distant places.
Valenzuela was different. Although there had been a 2-0 sneak preview of Valenzuela’s talents in September of 1980, he seemed to show up in the majors out of nowhere (a small town in Mexico in the spring of 1981). Promptly, he handled batters as if they were Little League hitters, fooling them with his screwball, and mowing them down with ease. The victories piled up and not only did Valenzuela become a new hero in Los Angeles, where the Mexican-American population was large, but all over the country because baseball fans wanted to see him pitch in person.
Fernando was like the Beatles coming to town. He was nicknamed “El Toro,” the bull, and there were Fernando souvenirs for sale in LA. Although 1981 was a labor dispute year that cost some games, Valenzuela finished 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA while leading the NL in innings pitched, complete games, shutouts and strikeouts. He won the rookie of the year award, the Most Valuable Player award, the Cy Young award, and helped pitch the Dodgers to the World Series title. That was a heck of a debut.
When it comes to phenomenon rankings, Fernando was a one-year wonder. But he remained an excellent pitcher, being chosen for six All-Star games and winning 173 times in 17 seasons although at the end injuries sent him on a less-than-glorious tour of other cities involving brief stops with other teams. Long after U.S. fans thought Valenzuela had retired, however, he kept toiling in the Mexican League.
It has been a long time since Valenzuela has garnered much attention among U.S. baseball fans and that’s despite his being a Dodger Spanish-language broadcaster since 2003. It’s doubtful that many among a younger generation of fans knows who Fernando Valenzuela is, but for those who followed the game in 1981 his name, image, and season will remain unforgettable.