Fernando Fever is sweeping Southern California like a brush fire on a windy day. The symptoms: giddiness, euphoria and a vague sense of disbelief. The cause: Fernando Valenzuela, the Dodgers' sensational 20-year-old rookie lefthander from Mexico. So what if Robert Redford says, "I've never heard of him." Valenzuela probably hasn't heard of Redford. A Redondo man composed a song in Valenzuela's honor. A Barstow woman created a Fernando Valenzuela T shirt. The highbrow Los Angeles Times published a laudatory editorial. The lowbrow Los Angeles Herald Examiner started a nickname contest. And the message board at Dodger Stadium has taken to identifying Valenzuela by his first name only.
The epidemiology of Fernando Fever can be easily documented. In his first four starts Valenzuela pitched complete-game victories over Houston (2-0 and 1-0), San Diego (2-0) and San Francisco (7-1). As of last Sunday he was the National League leader in wins, shutouts, earned run average (0.25) and strikeouts (36) and he had walked just seven batters. If you include Valenzuela's 28 days in the majors late last season (2-0 and a 0.00 ERA in 17 2/3 innings of relief) and the final six weeks of his minor league career (7-0 and 0.00 in 35 innings at San Antonio), he has allowed just one earned run in 88 2/3 innings and won his last 13 decisions.
Valenzuela's success can be traced to October 1979 when he was taught how to throw a screwball by Dodger Reliever Bob Castillo. He perfected that difficult pitch in a year—or a half-dozen fewer seasons than it took Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell, the most famous of all screwball pitchers. Delivered with a high-kicking motion that brings to mind Juan Marichal, Valenzuela's scroogie tails away from righthanded hitters. When righties crowd the plate to get a better shot at it, Valenzuela jams them with an inside fastball he perfected under the tutelage of Pitching Coach Ron Perranoski. But like most outstanding pitchers, Valenzuela relies as much on carefully nurtured skills as raw ability. "He can hit either corner with his fastball, throw the scroogie at two different speeds and come in with a fine curve," says Perranoski.
Valenzuela isn't the first rookie pitcher to get off to a fast start, and some of his predecessors have sobering histories. Boo Ferriss won his first eight decisions, including four shutouts for the 1945 Red Sox, finished the season at 21-10 and was 25-6 in 1946, but he burned out quickly. Karl Spooner threw two shutouts after reporting to Brooklyn late in 1954, but survived just one complete season. Von McDaniel, who was said to "hypnotize the bats," won four straight for St. Louis early in 1957; he finished that year at 7-5 and was demoted in 1958. The most celebrated pitching phenom of all time was Detroit's Mark Fidrych. The Bird was 9-1, with nine complete games and a 1.86 ERA, on July 3, 1976 and finished the season at 19-9, but he has fought a losing battle against injuries ever since. However, Jerry Koosman (4-0 start and a 19-12 record in 1968) and Vida Blue (19-3 and 24-8 in 1971) did use exceptional performances in their first full seasons as launching pads to distinguished careers. That Valenzuela is the majors' youngest player—Yankee Pitcher Gene Nelson was born one month later but he's on the disabled list—makes his success all the more startling.
May 3, 1981
"You judge a guy by what he does in battle, not basic training," says Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda. "We brought him up in the heat of last year's race, and our scouts said he could be used in any situation. Just look what he did."
The Astros were the victims in Valenzuela's most significant game so far this season, a 1-0 victory last Wednesday in Houston. He was facing the Astros for the second time in two weeks, and when he had trouble keeping his pitches down, Houston figured to tee off on him. Yet Valenzuela pitched out of trouble in five innings, leaving eight men on base overall. "He was so relaxed out there," said Dodger Reliever Terry Forster, "that he seemed to be laughing at them, telling them they couldn't score."
That wasn't all he did. With the Astros' Terry Puhl on second and nobody out in the first inning, Valenzuela fielded Craig Reynolds' bunt in front of the mound. Seeing Puhl trapped off second, Valenzuela went after him like a lion after a zebra, tagged him out, wheeled instinctively to throw and almost caught Reynolds off first for a double play. Minutes later Valenzuela did catch Reynolds off first with a perfect pickoff throw, but Reynolds reached second when First Baseman Steve Garvey hit him on the back with his relay. And just for good measure, Valenzuela drove in the game's only run with a single down the leftfield line. A slap hitter with good bat control, he was batting .333 at week's end.
"One thing I can't do is run," says Valenzuela. At 5'11", 190 pounds, he'll never be mistaken for an Olympic sprinter, but Forster believes that "weight is an advantage. It keeps him strong." Indeed, Mike Scioscia, who has caught Valenzuela in three of his four starts, says the pitcher grows stronger as the game progresses.
Valenzuela is a powerful endorsement of the three Cs: control, confidence and composure. "He's great at hitting the corners," says Mike Brito, a Cuban-born scout who signed Valenzuela to a Dodger contract, after spotting him in an obscure Mexican league. "He's confident enough to throw Johnny Bench a fastball with men on second and third. But what amazes me is that he's never nervous. I'd like to know why. All Fernando says is, 'I'm not supposed to be afraid.' "
People who have watched Valenzuela pitch are both impressed and confused. "I'm in awe of anybody who can master the screwball," says Houston Pitcher Don Sutton. "The key is his fastball," argues San Francisco Second Baseman Joe Morgan. "It's good enough that you can't lean on his curve or screwball." Says Astro First Baseman Mike Ivie, "His delivery and motion make it look as if he's throwing a fastball all the time." Houston Outfielder Puhl appreciates the way Valenzuela mixes speeds. "By the fifth or sixth he has figured out just how much he needs to take off his screwball to each hitter." Adds San Diego Outfielder Gene Richards, "You have to like his control, even if he's the other team's pitcher. It's great seeing a 20-year-old pitcher doing the things he does, great being a part of it."
In fairness to Valenzuela's baffled opponents, there's no easily discernible pattern to his pitching. He uses the screwball 60% to 70% of the time but isn't the least bit reluctant to go to other pitches in the clutch and use them in unexpected ways. "A lot of times he shakes off my pitches and then strikes guys out," says Scioscia. "He knows what he's doing." Ivie could testify to that. With men in scoring position, Valenzuela twice caught him looking at fastballs on the outside corner.
According to the 1980 census, there are 2,065,724 people of Spanish origin in Los Angeles County, and the number is increasing rapidly. Until recently, though, the Dodgers drew poorly from the Hispanic community. "We never said we wouldn't go to games," says Valenzuela's agent, Antonio De Marco, a Mexican immigrant, "but we did tell the Dodgers they should get some Mexican players, and they were slow to do it."
Although Valenzuela appeals to fans of all backgrounds, he's especially popular among his countrymen. "I've never seen anything like it," says KTNQ radio's Jaime Jarrin, who has broadcast L.A. games in Spanish since the Dodgers moved West in 1958. "Castillo is a Mexican-American, a Chicano who was born in Los Angeles, but it's a bigger thing to have someone from Mexico. And Fernando is from the state of Sonora, a main source of immigrants to this area. We Latins are big sports fans. We've always had sports heroes, but they've been boxers. Fernando has the potential to become king of them all."
"Within 24 hours after he beat the Astros on Wednesday, we sold out the reserved seats for his next scheduled start, against the Giants on Monday," says Dodger Vice-President Fred Claire. "That's unprecedented."
To be sure, Valenzuela isn't the only reason for the team's popularity among Angelenos of Latin descent. There are four other Dodgers of Hispanic origin—Coach Manny Mota, Rightfielder Pedro Guerrero and Infielder Pepe Frias, all from the Dominican Republic, and Castillo. Through last Sunday the Dodgers had a 13-3 record, the best in the National League West, and they were off to their best start since 1955. Guerrero has been a pleasant surprise substituting for the injured Reggie Smith, newcomer Ken Landreaux has filled a problem spot in center, and Scioscia has exceeded all expectations at catcher. But the Dodgers live and die by pitching. The last six times they've won the pennant their staff has led the league in ERA. This year's ERA of 1.74 leads that of every team in baseball except Oakland.
Because Valenzuela speaks through interpreters and discloses little about himself, some English-speaking reporters have described him in one-dimensional terms. Some would have their readers believe that his English vocabulary is limited to yes, no, television, food and six-pack. "He struts around the mound like a Mexican general," wrote one reporter. Other comments have included "Valenzuela's nickname should be Pauncho" and "Maybe he'll overdose on burritos and beer." Typifying this sort of coverage was a cartoon in the Herald Examiner that pictured Valenzuela as a matador fighting a bull labeled "National League hitters." Mexican-Americans and Spanish-speaking reporters have objected to this treatment of Valenzuela, justifiably claiming that it smacks of stereotyping; Valenzuela's friends protest merely that the real Fernando isn't being captured.
"People have told Fernando that he's still pitching exhibitions," says De Marco. "Fernando knows he isn't, but he goes along with them because he doesn't want to spoil anybody's fun. He's very grateful to the media, even when they make fun of him. He heard they would be cold and mean, but they've been just the opposite. They give him affection and love—cari‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o we call it. Fernando's shy, but he wants to learn English; he's listening to cassettes and his pronunciation is very good." It's typical of Valenzuela's savvy that though he speaks and understands more English than he lets on, he uses an interpreter for interviews so he won't be misunderstood.
Valenzuela's reticence disguises a keen baseball mind. While going over the Houston hitters before the season opener, Perranoski was amazed at how well Valenzuela remembered them from last September. "I saw him in the minors one time when he had runners on first and third," says Perranoski. "The guy on first broke for second. Many young pitchers would have balked then. Fernando just stepped back off the rubber, spotted the guy on third breaking and threw him out at home by 10 feet."
"I like Los Angeles because there are a lot of people here who speak Spanish," Valenzuela says. More people than he's accustomed to, because he's from the poor farming community of Etchohuaquila (pop. approximately 150). In L.A. he lives in a Mexican neighborhood near the ballpark and depends on friends for transportation because he doesn't drive. He spends much of his spare time listening to music and watching television. Eventually he says he will marry his girl friend, who lives in the Yucatan, but not, he insists, until he's firmly settled.
"We've had no less than 20 to 25 calls for endorsements," says De Marco. "We say no at this time because we don't want Fernando to be distracted. He has many people helping him—me, Jaime Jarrin, Mike Brito and Rudy Garcia, sports editor of La Opinión, the daily Spanish-language newspaper—but I feel every Mexican and Mexican-American is an honorary friend of Fernando's.
"He's touched by God because everything that has happened to him has been coincidental. He came up last year only because the staff was in shambles. The next coincidence was this season's opener. Jerry Reuss was hurt and Burt Hooton wasn't ready, so the Dodgers turned to Fernando, who had pitched batting practice the day before, and they said, 'Let's send him to the fire and see how he cooks.' He won. Then he won again. And again."
Fernando's story is a lyrical one, all right. Perhaps that's why someone calling himself Larry from Redondo telephoned the Dodgers' English-language radio station, KABC, and sang off-key a song he'd written in Valenzuela's honor. One of the verses will surely echo through the National League all summer:
The batters come up but they're helpless.
The reason is simple and pure:
If his fastball should miss, I will promise you this,
That his scroogie will get them for sure.