Fernando Valenzuela (1960
- ) was a left-handed pitching phenom for baseball
's Los Angeles Dodgers
in the 1980s
and one of the sport's first Mexican stars. Thanks to of one of the nastiest screwballs
the game had ever seen, Fernando catapulted to superstardom in 1981
, capturing both the National League Rookie of the Year
and Cy Young
awards and helping LA to a World Series
title. Portly, baby-faced, and quick to smile, Fernando made no bones about his love of tacos and beer, wore his emotions on his sleeve, and looked toward heaven before every pitch. He quickly became a heroic everyman to Mexican-Americans, spawning the sensation known as "Fernandomania
" - Angelinos turned out at Dodger Stadium
in droves and turned every fifth game into a rocking fiesta
, forging an enduring Mexican fan base that the Dodgers retain to this day.
The youngest of 12 children of a Mexican farm family, Fernando was discovered pitching in a dirt field as a teenager by legendary Dodgers scout Mike Brito. Despite not knowing a word of English and never having played organized ball, Fernando moved up quickly through the minor leagues. After being called up to the bigs for a brief cup of coffee in the fall of 1980, Fernando was pressed into emergency service on opening day of 1981 when scheduled starter Jerry Reuss pulled a calf muscle. It was Fernando's first major league start, and he was only 19 years old.
Fernando proved more than up to the challenge, however, pitching a complete game and shutting out the Houston Astros, 2-0. Fernando then proceeded to win eight games in a row, including five shutouts. When he finally lost on May 18, his record "fell" to 8-1 and his ERA "rose" to 0.90. Fernando was named the NL starter in the All Star game and wound up finishing the strike-shortened season with 13 wins and a 2.48 ERA, edging out the great Tom Seaver for the Cy Young Award (and becoming the only rookie ever to win it), and easily capturing Rookie of the Year honors over a distant-second Tim Raines. In the World series against the hated Yankees, Fernando outpitched fellow rookie Dave Righetti in a complete game victory.
Over the next decade, Fernando was one of the dominant hurlers in the National League. In 1986 he had a particularly outstanding year, going 21-11 to finish second in Cy Young voting, and in 1988 he helped the Dodgers to another World Series title. In the late 1980s, however, Fernando began to lose velocity off his fastball. All the innings he had thrown began to take their toll - from 1981 to 1987 he had been in the top 3 in innings pitched every year except '83 (when he was still 5th). But even more damaging was the fact that throwing a screwball is one of the most unnatural motions you can make with your arm. After eight seasons of utter dominance, Fernando fought elbow troubles throughout the 1988 season, and never seemed quite the same again.
Still, in 1990, he showed a bit of the old brilliance. Amid rumors that the Dodgers were looking to trade him, and refusals by the team to extend his contract, Fernando tossed a no hitter on June 29 on his way to 13 wins (prompting Vin Scully's memorable call "If you have a sombrero, throw it to the sky!"). But his unsightly 4.59 ERA was the highest of his career, and the Dodgers had seen enough. The released him the next spring and Fernando was washed out of the majors at age 30.
But despite seeing his once-90-mph fastball max out in the low 80s, Fernando headed home to the Mexican League and reinvented himself as a crafty finesse pitcher with a baffling array of off-speed breaking balls. He never gave up on his dream of returning to the majors, and finally did make it back in the mid 1990s with the Baltimore Orioles, Philadelphia Phillies, and San Diego Padres. After putting up mediocre numbers with the Orioles and Phillies, Fernando stunned the baseball world in 1996 by putting together one last outstanding season, emerging as the ace for the playoff-bound Padres by going 13-8 and a posting a fine 3.62 ERA. He went 2-12 in 1997, however, and never did catch on with a major league team again, despite several more years of trying. He returned to Mexico once again, and was still pitching professionally well into the 2000s.
Fernando's influence on Los Angeles's sports scene cannot be overstated. He galvanized LA's Mexican-American community with a deep sense of pride and a newfound feeling of participation in the American experience. Along the way he brought millions of new fans to the sport of baseball, both in LA and across the US, and revolutionized the way sports franchises marketed their teams. Whereas previously major sports had been largely marketed to and attended by whites and blacks only, after Fernando teams came to see the untapped potential of marketing to other groups such as Mexicans, other Hispanics, and later Asians. Fernando also inspired a generation of Mexicans to take up baseball, leading to a wave of successful Mexican stars in the 1990s such as Vinny Castilla and Erubiel Durazo.
But perhaps more importantly, Fernando inspired thousands of young Mexican Americans to strive for greatness on all sorts of paths in life, not just in baseball or sports - many Mexican-Americans today cite Fernando as their inspiration for achieving success in their lives as lawyers, businessmen, entertainers, or doctors.