Twenty years ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers couldn't believe their good fortune. They handed the baseball to rookie pitcher Fernando Valenzuela and, like Superman stepping out of the phone booth in his bright uniform, he made history.
El Toro (the Bull) was a 20-year-old whose sun-baked face made him look years older. Born in a village of 150 citizens in Etchohauquila, Mexico, Valenzuela became the Dodgers' meal ticket both on the field and at the turnstiles. This year, he celebrates his 20th anniversary in baseball. The tough left-handed pitcher has come full circle. He continues to pitch today in the Mexican League, where his career began.
Every time the Los Angeles Dodgers announced that Valenzuela would pitch, home attendance at Dodger Stadium would soar by at least 12,000 fans, most of them from the city's heavily Hispanic population. Eventually this phenomenon would also take root in road games, until "Fernandomania" became a household word.
In fewer than seven months in 1981, Valenzuela would be named National League Rookie of the Year, winner of his league's Cy Young award, and log an October win over the New York Yankees en route to the Dodgers becoming world champions.
All this from a guy who was shaped like the Pillsbury Doughboy, knew maybe a dozen words in English, was part Mayan Indian, grew up on a farm half the size of the Dodgers' infield, and was the seventh son of a family of 12 children.
Five of Valenzuela's eight consecutive victories for the Dodgers at the start of the 1981 season were not only complete games but shutouts. His earned-run average was a microscopic 0.50 for 72 innings of work. Not only did a nation stop to watch, but so did the Oval Office: At the height of Fernandomania came an invitation to meet President Reagan in the White House.
How the Dodgers discovered Valenzuela is a story that needs retelling. In fact, you have to go back to the mid-1970s when Mike Brito, a Cuban and former catching prospect in the old Washington Senators farm system, recommended a young pitcher named Bobby Castillo to the Dodgers. What Castillo had going for him was a screwball that often produced a lot of ground-ball outs.
Convinced that Brito had an eye for raw young talent, Dodger general manager Al Campanis made him a scout and sent him on regular visits to the Mexican League. It was there that Brito discovered Valenzuela for the Dodgers.
After Valenzuela spent a year stateside in the minors, Campanis became convinced that if Fernando were ever going to make the Dodgers, he would need more than a fastball and a curve. The Dodgers answer was to send Valenzuela to a rookie league to learn the mechanics of the screwball from Castillo.
Legend has it that Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell of the New York Giants, probably the most famous of all screwball pitchers, needed five years before the "scroogie" became his best weapon. The way Valenzuela took to the screwball, though, the pupil soon was better than the teacher.
The screwball works best for control pitchers who use a high-kick motion that tends to hide the ball's release point from the hitter. The secret of throwing the "scroogie" is to do it so there is little strain on the arm. The other half is to be able to throw it at two different speeds. Few who have tried it can do both consistently.
"The reason the two different screwballs that Valenzuela throws are so hard for the batter to hit is because he uses them so effectively in conjunction with his fastball," former Dodger pitching great Sandy Koufax told me years ago.
Asked at the time if he thought the Dodgers might be overworking Valenzuela by having him pitch so often after only three days rest, Koufax replied:
"If Valenzuela were a pitcher who fell all over himself when he worked, who was going to a full count against every hitter, I would be against the idea. But this is a kid with great rhythm and a strong arm, who obviously knows how to pitch...."
Hitters who guess the screwball when coming up against Valenzuela (and remember he has two scroogies) are just as apt to be swinging at a fastball, a curve, or a change-up because they are all thrown with the same motion.
If Valenzuela has a trademark, it is the way he seems to ignore the hitter as he rolls his eyes to the heavens on every pitch, a mannerism photographers can't seem to resist.
Overall, Valenzuela spent 10 years with Los Angeles, pitched 2,348 innings for manager Tommy Lasorda, winning 141 regular season games, and drawing millions of fans to Dodger Stadium. One of his gems was a 6-0 no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals in 1990.
When the Dodgers gave Valenzuela his release just before the start of the 1991 season, it was mainly because he could no longer make the screwball do tricks. He had also begun to throw the home-run ball much too frequently.
Yet Valenzuela would still pitch briefly for five more major-league teams until finishing up 0-4 with the Cardinals in 1997.
After that it was back to the Mexican League, not because Valenzuela needed the money, but because he needed the competition. The first two years he struggled, but he has since added two new pitches: an off-speed curve and a cut fastball. He will pitch in the Sombrero Circuit again this season.
One has to wonder if this nearly middle-aged man who still lives in a big house near Dodger Stadium with his wife, Linda, and their four children - one of whom plays first base for Glendale Community College - will ever quit the sport he loves.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor