Baseball's El Toro: Mexican mirage?

By , Sports columnist of The Christian Science Monitor

Maybe, just maybe, pitcher Fernando Valenzuela of the Lost Angeles Dodgers is a Mexican mirage -- an invention dreamed up by some public relations firm hired to make sure that the National League will outdraw the American this season.

Whenever Manager Tom Lasorda has given his 20-year-old left-hander the ball this spring, fans have showed up in record numbers -- and he hasn't disappointed them yet. The newest here of the region's large Mexican-American community has won all five of his starts, four of them by shutout, and leads the league in virtually every major pitching category.

The amazing thing about Valenzuela, who doesn't speak English, is that he looks more like the Pillsbury doughboy than a baseball player. He is wide through the shoulders, wide through the chest, and wide through the waist. His legs appear one size too small to carry his body. Yet against bunted balls Fernando is off the mound like a cat, and he never throws to the wrong base.

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As for his pitching arsenal, the young southpaw has an excellent fastball and is also able to confound the batters with a very personalized version of the screwball. This is a pitch that, when properly delivered, creates the impression that it has just rolled off the edge of a table, only with considerably more speed.

In his five starting assignments this season, Valenzuela has recorded five complete games, 42 strikeouts (the most in the NL) and an 0.20 earned run average. He also has a string of 28 scoreless innings.

Counting his minor league record plus a September trial with the Dodgers last year, Valenzuela has now allowed just one earned run in his last 97 1/3 innings.

Fernando can hit, too. When he beat Houston recently, he drove in the game's only run. Last Monday night against San Francisco, he had three hits in four at bats, and he is now hitting .438.

When the Dodgers opened spring training, they still hadn't decided on the best way to use Valenzuela who came up as a relief pitcher at the tail end of 1980 and gave Lasorda 17 2/3 innings of no-run baseball. Making 10 appearances, he won two games, saved another, and walked only five batters while striking out 16.

Prior to that, Fernando hadn't allowed a run in his last 35 innings of Class AA ball with the Dodgers' San Antonio farm club. There are still those around Dodger Stadium who think L.A. would have beaten Houston in their one-game National League playoff last October if Lasorda had gambled and started the youngster instead of veteran Dave Goltz.

"Although people talk about how young Valenzuela is and how baseball-smart he is for a kid who is only 20, I don't even think of him as a rookie," said Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, who works as a special assignment pitching instructor for the Dodgers. "I don't think it is that unusual for a kid who quits school at 15 and has been pitching professionally for five years to have acquired so many good instincts.

"The reason the two different screwballs he throws are so hard for the batter to hit is because he uses them so effectively in conjunction with his fastball," Koufax continued. "In fact, his fastball might be his best pitch, and he is also tough because he throws strikes and because he keeps the ball down. In spring training because he was falling off the rubber to one side after he threw , he had a little trouble with his control. But once we mentioned this, he never did it again."

Asked if he thought the Dodgers might be overworking Valenzuela by having pitch as often as he can after only three days' rest, Koufax said:

"If Valenzuela were a pitcher who fell all over himself when he worked, who was going 3-and-2 on every hitter, or who had the kind of body frame that suggested a lack of stamina, I would be against the idea. But this is a kid with great rhythm, who never throws that many pitches in a game, and who obviously knows how to rise to the occasion with men on base.

"I often worked with only three days' rest between starts, and sometimes, if the Dodgers were short of starters, I pitched after only two days on the sidelines, and I never felt that this shortened my career."

The Dodgers reportedly have Valenzuela signed to a one-year contract at $40, 000 although it would be unlike them not to give him a big bonus at the end of the season, and perhaps a new car as well.

Finding an apartment in East L.A., learning to drive a car, watching TV maybe six hours a day, playing video games, and listening to English-Spanish instruction tapes occupy most of Fernando's time off the field. He also has a girlfriend named Linda. And the L.A. newspaper that is running a contest to find a catchy nickname for Fernando can stop. He says he has had one for several years and it is El Toro, meaning the Bull.

Mike Brito, the scout who signed Valenzuela, says he comes from a small village about 20 miles north of Navojoa, Mexico, where he and his 11 brothers and sisters grew up.

His family has a ranch the size of a postage stamp, and can trace its ancestry back to the Mayan Indians. The Dodgers were so concerned that people wouldn't believe that their prize rookie, who has a very mature face, was only 20, that they had Brito pick up a copy of his birth certificate. It has since been photographed and published in several Los Angeles papers.

"When I first watched Valenzuela pitch in the Mexican League at 17, all I could think of was that was a future major leaguer," Brito said. "But I don't think Fernando became super until pitcher Bobby Castillo, at the request of the Dodgers, went to the Instructional league and taught him to throw the screwball."

So far the language barrier has caused few problems for Valenzuela, partly because Lasorda, coach Manny Mota, and at least four Dodger players speak Spanish. And when Fernando goes out alone to eat, he simply orders by pointing to one of the pictures on the menu.

It doesn't take much imagination when looking at Valenzuela straight-on to see the same pudgy, moon-face that made Babe Ruth instantly recognizable from Joplin to Japan. More important, this kid also seems to have acquired a Ruthian arm -- and the Babe won 94 regular season games plus three in the World Series in only a few years of big league pitching!

Valenzuela's amazing start IP H R ER BB SO April 9 vs. Houston 9 5 0 0 2 5 April 14 vs. San Francisco 9 4 1 1 2 10 April 18 vs. San Diego 9 5 0 0 0 10 April 22 vs. Houston 9 7 0 0 3 11 April 27 vs. San Francisco 9 7 0 0 4 6 45 28 1 1 11 42

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