The Natural is supposed to be a blue-eyed boy who teethed on a 36-ounce Louisville Slugger. He should run like the wind and throw boysenberries through brick. He should come from California.
The Dodgers have one this year, only he's El Natural. His name is Fernando Valenzuela, and with apologies to the 150 citizens of Etchohuaquila, Mexico, he comes from nowhere. His ancestry is Mayan Indian, and he speaks just enough English to order a beer. He is a lefthanded pitcher, and his body is more reminiscent of former Dodger lefthander Tommy Lasorda than it is of former Dodger lefthander Sandy Koufax. His future is more Koufax, though, than Lasorda.
Los Angeles fans got a tantalizing glimpse of Valenzuela in the last weeks of the 1980 season, when the Dodgers called him up from San Antonio of the Class AA Texas League to help them in their fight for the National League West title. Without Valenzuela, the Dodgers might not have forced the one-game playoff with the Houston Astros. In 10 relief appearances covering 17⅖ innings, Valenzuela allowed no earned runs, struck out 16 and had two victories and a save. In the short time he spent with LA., he captured the heart of the Mexican community that surrounds Dodger Stadium, and it is no coincidence that he graces the back cover of the Dodgers' 1981 media guide.
Media guides are replete with hope, for '"rookie" in baseball's lexicon means hope, and every big league team has youngsters who are being counted on to come through, either now or in the near future. The Montreal Expos, for example, expect Tim Raines, minor league player of the year in 1980, to fill a gap in their outfield right away, whereas the Pittsburgh Pirates, solid behind the plate, can afford to be patient with an impressive rookie catcher named Tony Pena.
March 23, 1981
If Valenzuela fulfills Dodger hopes and becomes the third Los Angeles pitcher in a row to be named National League Rookie of the Year (following Rick Sutcliffe and Steve Howe), it will be because of his lanzamiento de tornillo, which is Spanish for scroogie. It usually takes years to master the screwball; Valenzuela did it in one season, and he has two of them, slow and fast. Dodger Catcher Joe Ferguson maintains that Valenzuela also has two kinds of fastball, straight and sinking, as well as a terrific curve, a changeup and a mediocre slider. "I run out of fingers when I give him the signs," says Ferguson.
Valenzuela is only 20, but he throws as if he were 34, which is his uniform number. Koufax, now a Dodger special pitching instructor, says, "It's very unusual for someone that young to have such control over so many pitches." Koufax says Valenzuela reminds him of Ron Perranoski, the renowned Dodger relief pitcher of the 1960s, because of his build. Perranoski, now the Dodgers' pitching coach, says Valenzuela reminds him of Jim Brewer, who succeeded Perranoski in the bullpen, because of his screwball. Dodger Vice President Al Campanis says Valenzuela reminds him of Carl Erskine, a Dodger hero of Ebbets Field days, because of his poise. One thing they all say: he's a natural.
"He throws so damn easy, it's sickening," says Rightfielder Reggie Smith.
"He's an amazing pitcher," says Brian Holton, who pitched with Valenzuela in the minor leagues. "At San Antonio we called him the Amazing Chief. It was a gross mismatch every time he went out there last summer."
"He may not speak good English," says Ducky LeJohn, Valenzuela's manager at San Antonio, "but he speaks pretty good baseball."
Valenzuela was born Nov. 1, 1960 in Navojoa on the west coast of Mexico. The Dodgers know this because Campanis sent Mike Brito, the scout who signed Valenzuela, to Navojoa to pick up his birth certificate. "I knew nobody would believe how young he was, unless we got some proof," says Campanis.
Fernando was the last of 12 children of Avelino and Maria Valenzuela; omen fans might be interested to know that he was the seventh son. The family has a small farm in Etchohuaquila, a settlement about 20 miles north of Navojoa. "The family is very, very poor," says Brito. "The farm is about half the size of the Dodger Stadium infield, about from shortstop to home plate." The family would work its own land in the morning, and the sons would work for money on a ranch in the afternoon. Fernando vows that with his first big money, he will buy his family a ranch.
Mexican kids play either soccer or baseball, and much as he liked soccer, Valenzuela says through an interpreter, "God put the talent in my arm, not in my feet." His eldest brother. Rafael, discovered that talent when Fernando was 13. "It was a winter day, and we were just throwing the ball around," Fernando says. "Rafael told me, 'You have the arm to be a pitcher.' " Fernando became so good that he started playing professionally in Mexico after only a year of high school.
The Dodgers found him purely by accident, but that story really starts with Brito, a Cuban who caught in the Washington Senators farm system until a home-plate collision wrecked his elbow in 1959. Brito bounced around the Mexican leagues for a while before finally quitting as a player and settling down in Los Angeles. He drove an RC Cola truck and in his spare time ran an amateur baseball league. On one of the teams was a pitcher named Bobby Castillo, who had failed as an infielder in the Kansas City Royals' organization. Brito recommended Castillo to the Dodgers, and when Castillo proved his worth, Brito became a fulltime Dodger scout.
Soon after his promotion, Brito went down to Silao, Mexico to look at a shortstop in a Mexican rookie league. "All the hotels in Silao were booked—it was Holy Week—so I ended up sleeping in the bus station on the only four chairs in there," recalls Brito. After a fitful night, he waited around for the game between Silao and Guanajuato. He watched the shortstop, but he also noticed that the pitcher for the other team was striking everybody out, including his prized prospect. By the end of the game, Valenzuela had 12 strikeouts and the scout's undivided attention. "I couldn't believe he was only 17," says Brito.
He reported his find to Campanis, who the next year went down to Yucatan, where Valenzuela was then pitching, and liked what he saw. "He struck out Earl Williams, who was still a pretty good hitter," says Campanis. Valenzuela belonged to the Puebla club of the Mexican League, and the Dodgers began protracted negotiations with owner Jaime Avella, a prosperous Mexican Volkswagen dealer. Puebla was reluctant to let Fernando go, but Avella said the Dodgers would get first crack if they did decide to sell him. The two teams finally reached agreement, and on July 6, 1979 the Dodgers paid Puebla a reported $120,000, of which Valenzuela got $20,000. (One of the reasons there are few Mexican players in the majors is that Mexican clubs like to hold on to them. But the Puebla club was fair: when the Yankees, who also coveted Fernando, raised the bid to $150,000, Avella honored the Dodgers' offer.)
Valenzuela was sent to Lodi in the Class A California League for the last weeks of the 1979 season, and in 24 innings he gave up only three earned runs. But Campanis felt that Valenzuela's fastball and curveball weren't enough, so he asked Castillo to go to the Arizona Instructional League the following winter and teach Fernando the screwball. Castillo, who had learned the pitch by watching Pirate reliever Enrique Romo throw on the sidelines in the Mexican League, says that Valenzuela picked it up right away. Says Castillo, "You have to learn to throw it without putting a strain on your arm. I remember talking to Carl Hubbell during an Old-Timers' Game, and he said the secret is to throw it at two different speeds."
Perranoski recalls that Warren Spahn taught Brewer how to throw the scroogie, but it was three years before Brewer could use it effectively. Valenzuela conquered the pitch in just a few months. "I saw Fernando three times last year," says Perranoski, then the Dodgers' minor-league pitching coach. "The first time he was getting away with some mistakes. The second time he was making fewer mistakes. The third time it was like watching a great horse in his last workout before the Kentucky Derby."
In his last eight games at San Antonio, Valenzuela had a 7-0 record with an 0.87 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 62 innings. New York Mets Outfielder Mike Howard, who batted against Fernando in the Texas League, said, "He was awesome. Great control, sneaky fastball. And that screwball—it breaks this much." Jackson held his hands wide apart.
Dodger advance scouts Jerry Stephenson and Charlie Metro filed glowing reports on Valenzuela. Says Lasorda, "They told me not to be afraid to use him in any situation. Usually, you use a kid like that in games that are already won or lost. But we used him in tight games in the middle of the pennant race."
The Dodgers called Valenzuela up on Sept. 10, after he had made only 30 appearances in their farm system. His first game was on Sept. 15 against Atlanta, and his first catcher was rookie Mike Scioscia. "It was the blind leading the blind," says Scioscia. "I know a little Spanish, but not enough to get a translator's job at the U.N. But he knew what he was doing." In two innings Valenzuela gave up two unearned runs but only one hit. Some rookie pitchers might have been afraid of Bob Horner, but Valenzuela retired him on an easy fly. He had never heard of Horner, anyway. In fact, Valenzuela didn't know who Koufax was before he signed with the Dodgers.
After blanking the Reds twice and the Giants once in relief, Valenzuela picked up his first save on Sept. 27 against the Padres. His first win came in a relief appearance against the Giants on Sept. 30. His second came in the opener of the final series with the Astros; he pitched the ninth and 10th innings and made Cesar Cedeno look silly on a fastball, a fast screwball and a slow screwball. On the final day of the regular season, when the Dodgers won to pull into a first-place tie with Houston, he had two more shutout innings. And in the playoff loss on Oct. 6, he blanked the Astros for two innings.
The ovations in Dodger Stadium grew each time Valenzuela walked out of the bullpen. Hard as it is to believe, Valenzuela is only the second native Mexican to pitch for the Dodgers since their move to Los Angeles; Josè Pena, a reliever from 1970 to '72, was the other. "I've never seen anything like it," says Rudy Hoyos, an actor and Spanish-language broadcaster for the Dodgers, who handles some of the translating chores for Valenzuela. "They love him already."
The adulation continued this winter when Valenzuela pitched in Mexico's Pacific League. All of his announced starts were sellouts, and he lived up to his fame with a 12-5 record, an ERA of 1.65 and 154 strikeouts in 147 innings.
As unlikely as Valenzuela's story is, his body is even more unlikely. The Dodgers list him as 5'11" and 180 pounds, which is a joke. The height is right, but the weight is off by about 20 pounds. Fernando says he has always been a big kid. And he loves his beer. "It's so hot in Mexico that beer is like water," he says, "and the beer is very good." Mexican beer is very good, and Valenzuela is living testament to its quality.
"I remember one time last year," says Mike Marshall, not the former reliever but a rookie first baseman, "the Chief waited at the airport for two days for his girl friend to show up. After the second day, when she still hadn't arrived, we saw him go into a grocery store. He came out with a six-pack of Budweiser and headed for his room, head down, belly out. He was going to drown his sorrows." Beer is the universal language.
Although Valenzuela looks pudgy, he is not out of shape; he runs three miles a day. He just eats like a horse. "My only worry," says Red Adams, the Dodgers pitching coach emeritus, "is that somebody will decide Fernando should lose weight, and then he will become the best-conditioned pitcher at Lodi this year."
Language has not been an impediment to Valenzuela's appetite. "I go to a restaurant and point at what I want on the menu," he says. "I have been surprised, but never disappointed." He thinks that too much has been made of his beer-drinking. He worries more about the blisters that occasionally sprout on his throwing hand than about his weight.
The Dodgers don't know yet what role Valenzuela will play for them this season. If they need help in the bullpen, he may have to return there. Otherwise, he'll be a starter. And while there may be occasional language problems with his teammates, there is no communications barrier. "He was the most popular guy on the San Antonio club last year," says Marshall. "He didn't say anything, but the Chief had the spirit of the clubhouse. Sometimes he'd make funny faces or spit water next to your feet."
His minor league nickname, "the Chief," came from the Indian character in the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Most of the Dodgers now call him Freddy in an effort to Anglicize Fernando. Some of them try to speak to him in Spanish, but it's usually of the el bat, el ball, el hit y run variety. One thing Valenzuela does understand is comedy. He loved Max Patkin. the Clown Prince of Baseball, when he visited San Antonio last year, and he sat laughing with Ted Giannoulas, the San Diego Chicken, at poolside for 20 minutes before Giannoulas realized that Fernando didn't understand English. Comedy is the universal language.
"He's actually a very quiet guy," says rookie Outfielder Mark Bradley, Valenzuela's roommate at Dodgertown in Vero Beach. "We try to get him to go out, but he just has two beers and goes to sleep. He does like video games, though." Space Invaders is the universal language.
Says Catcher Steve Yeager, "I only hope he never learns enough English to read the headlines about himself. He certainly doesn't need English to pitch." That's because baseball is the universal language.