Loaiza No. 2 to Valenzuela? Could be

Loaiza No. 2 to Valenzuela?

LOS ANGELES -- If there was every any doubt about Fernando Valenzuela's legacy at Dodger Stadium, the thunderous ovation he received on Opening Day as part of the club's 50th Anniversary celebration in the city squashed it.

You can argue former pitcher Sandy Koufax and former manager Tommy Lasorda received more cheers, but you can't argue that the barrel-chested, glasses-wearing, stoic-looking Valenzuela is the best pitcher to come out of Mexico and one of the best from a Spanish-speaking country -- ever.

Fernandomania and the summer of 1981 breathed again this week.

"He's the No. 1 pitcher from Mexico, the most talented and he revolutionized the game of baseball," said Mike Brito, the Dodgers scout who discovered Valenzuela. "He would fill up stadiums everywhere he went. Like Pedro Infante filled arenas, Fernando filled up parks. He is something special, a once-in-a-lifetime pitcher. You think there is another Fernando out there, let me know. I don't think there is one."

Valenzuela's 173-153 record is the best among Mexico-born pitchers, but who is the second-best pitcher to come out of the country? That's where the real argument begins -- in any language.

The old school says it's Milwaukee's Teddy Higuera -- and his 94-64 record and 3.61 ERA that started in the mid-1980s. Mets starter Oliver Perez and his left-handed arm is the pick of this generation. Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo is the choice for the future.

Pitchers Aurelio Lopez, Elmer Dessens, Sid Monge and Armando Reynoso among others all made Mexico proud. But ask them and they'll say it was Valenzuela that put Mexico on the MLB map.

Ask others and they'll say the real No. 2 on Mexico's magic list is the Dodgers own Esteban Loaiza. Since making his debut with the Pirates in 1995, Loaiza has a career record of 125-114, the second-most victories among Mexico-born pitchers behind Valenzuela. One-time Dodger Ismael Valdez is third on the all-time wins list for Mexican pitchers with a record of 104-105 in 11 seasons, starting in 1994.

"There are not very many of us left pitching with a lot of experience, and I never thought I would be second to Fernando Valenzuela in wins," Loaiza said. "I never thought I would have as many wins as I have right now. It's unbelievable. Fernando made history in the United States and did so much for Mexico. He opened the doors for Mexico, especially here in Los Angeles. He does so much for our country."

Valenzuela is aware of his own legacy yet he does not boast about it.

"If what I did in the big leagues helped others get here, I am happy," Valenzuela said. "It makes me feel good. I never like going to them and telling them to do this or that because everybody is different, different styles. I prefer to stay away unless somebody asks. I will be happy to help them out."

What Valenzuela does now is work in the Dodgers' Spanish radio booth. He can be spotted on occasion leaning against the railing near the home dugout but says he likes to stay away from the field because he is not playing anymore. He jokes that he's like Santa Claus when it comes to throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. It happens once a year and only if you've been nice.

Valenzuela has known Loaiza since the mid-1990s and says he still keeps track of the pitchers that come out of his country. He likes Perez and Gallardo, but also praises what Loaiza has been able to accomplish in his career.

"Esteban started pitching a lot early in his career because he got the opportunity and that's what everybody needs to show what he has," he said. "If teams give the kids a chance to pitch, they can win games. I saw Jorge de La Rosa in Spring Training and Joakim Soria. These kids are good. They need a chance and need a little support. You score some runs for these kids so you don't think you have to be perfect."

"Look at Rodrigo [Lopez]," Valenzuela continued. "I was in San Diego in 1995 when Rodrigo was in the Minor Leagues. He got a chance to show what he can do with the Orioles and was good. He just needed a chance."

Loaiza's chance came with the Pirates in 1995 and he has gone on to win at least 10 games in a season seven times. With the White Sox in 2003, he went 21-9 with a 2.90 ERA. With the Dodgers, he is the fifth man in the rotation.

For now. He is 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA in two appearances (one start) this season.

"The good thing is I have been able to stay strong and healthy for a lot of my career," Loaiza said. "I think I know the hitters and how to pitch when I am out there. I have been a professional pitcher for a long time now, so I have been able to figure out how to get people out. I'm not going to stop doing that."

"He doesn't look like he is throwing hard, but he is hitting spots a lot better," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "His experience is basically what is going to give us a chance to win. I think things he can do and the fact that he is not afraid to do it. He's really not afraid to take a chance."

Brito does not mince his words. He likes Loaiza as a pitcher. He's just doesn't love him. Loaiza is on Brito's list of great Mexican pitchers -- somewhere.

"Valenzuela was obviously the best from Mexico, but Higuera was better than Loaiza, too," Brito said. "I would even say Valdez was better. Francisco Cordova was a great one, too. Loaiza had some good years, especially when he played for the White Sox, but he has lost some of his velocity. There was a time when he was really good."

Loaiza takes the criticism in stride. He's just happy to be mentioned among his country's legendary pitchers. He knows he's not Valenzuela. Nobody is.

"I'm going to keep playing as long as my arm allows me to," Loaiza said. "I want to keep playing until I can't get anybody out anymore. Then maybe I retire for one or two years, rest and then come back to baseball like Vinicio [Castilla]."

Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.