Three years after I became a Dodgers fan, I witnessed something that I will never see again as a baseball fan. A 20-year old took the baseball world by storm and changed the sport forever.
I'm writing about Fernando Valenzuela, of course. Valenzuela opened doors for the Mexican community in Los Angeles and Hispanic people everywhere. No one in baseball ever produced more excitement than Valenzuela did. This past Sunday, Valenzuela was inducted into the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame. Unless the Veteran's Committee elects him into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Valenzuela won't be enshrined there. To me, this is criminal and should be corrected immediately. In my generation, no one did more to enlarge the baseball fan base and change the game than Valenzuela.
I won't write about all of his statistics because they don't tell the story. Valenzuela was a fantastic starting pitcher who threw a lot of innings and never heard of a pitch count. In 1986, he threw 20 complete games out of his 34 starts. Nowadays, even the best pitchers usually don't throw more than four complete games per season. Valenzuela's overuse probably contributed to the fairly quick end of his dominance.
As a 19-year-old who didn't speak English and was the youngest of 12 children from a poor family that lived in Sonora, Mexico, Valenzuela was thrust into the hotly contested 1980 National League West race between the Dodgers and the Houston Astros. He pitched 18 innings in relief and helped to force a playoff for the division title. Even though Valenzuela was extremely young and from a rural part of Mexico, he never showed jitters.
Since Valenzuela performed outstandingly the previous year and had a fantastic Spring Training, Los Angeles skipper Tommy Lasorda wanted the young lefty in the 1981 Dodgers starting rotation. Only 24 hours before Opening Day, Jerry Reuss -- who was slated to start the opener -- sustained a minor injury that prevented him from pitching. Burt Hooton needed more rest before he pitched, so Lasorda gave the prestigious start to the rookie Valenzuela.
Valenzuela didn't let his team down and pitched a shutout against the Astros, the bitter rivals of the Dodgers in the early 1980s. He began the '81 season with eight consecutive victories, including five shutouts, and had an ERA of 0.50.
That season had a long labor dispute in the middle, canceling more than 50 games. Since Valenzuela dominated every team, he became the first pitcher to earn both the NL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards in the same year. However, the most enduring memory for me was during the 1981 World Series vs. the Yankees, when Valenzuela struck out future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, who had been a Dodgers nemesis for two prior World Series with the New York Yankees and one with the Oakland A's.
Valenzuela's extraordinary performance attracted baseball fans everywhere, coining the term "Fernandomania." Every time he pitched, the stadiums were jammed packed. Even in Houston, people held up signs giving tribute to Valenzuela and chanted "Fernando, Fernando!" when he pitched. Members of the media followed him everywhere, so the young man had no privacy, but Valenzuela had no scandal surrounding him.
Since he didn't speak English, the longtime Dodgers Spanish-language broadcaster Jaime Jarrin acted as Valenzuela's personal interpreter. This national attention for Jarrin helped him to receive the well-deserved Ford C. Frick award from the Hall of Fame in 1998.
Since Valenzuela had a hard time communicating with Dodgers catchers, another rookie, Mike Scioscia, learned Spanish and had the opportunity to catch for Valenzuela before he became the regular Dodgers catcher. I don't know whether the Dodgers would have let Scioscia be their catcher without having the opportunity to show them his abilities every fifth day when Valenzuela pitched. If they didn't have Scioscia catching in the 1980s and the early '90s, they probably wouldn't have experienced the same success.
For the first time in MLB history, people from Latin America came to baseball stadiums in droves. Valenzuela's success inspired many Hispanic youngsters to play baseball and dream about reaching the Major Leagues.
Now, every pitcher has a pitch count and teams keep a closer watch on the number of innings they throw. Valenzuela was one of the most dominant pitchers in the game from 1981 to the beginning of the '87 season, and then he suffered a shoulder injury that sapped the magic out of his arm. His famous screwball never regained its movement, and his fastball never had the same velocity, so that the screwball didn't act like a good changeup anymore. Valenzuela's last time in the spotlight in the Major Leagues came on June 29, 1990, when he pitched a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Unlike most pitchers, Valenzuela was an excellent hitter and fielder. Despite retiring from the Majors in 1997, Valenzuela kept on playing in the Mexican Leagues until 2006. He has served as a coach for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic since its inaugural year, and this spring he will do it again. Since '03, Valenzuela has been an analyst on the Dodgers' Spanish broadcasts.
As a teenager, I looked up to Valenzuela for his ability to perform well under pressure and his professionalism. He was the only baseball player that I have watched regularly who I have never seen commit a mental error on the field. As I grow older and look back on what Valenzuela did as a 20-year-old pitcher, it impresses me more than it did at the time. In my opinion, undoubtedly Valenzuela belongs in every professional baseball Hall of Fame, because he was a pioneer in baseball.
Sarah D. Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less