At a little dinner party given at the White House last Thursday night for the President of Italy, a few of Tommy Lasorda's very closest friends inquired about the health of one of his pitchers. Frank Sinatra asked, George Bush asked. Even President Reagan asked about Fernando.
Fernando Valenzuela is fine, thank you. At 10:14:12 a.m. on March 24, Valenzuela made his first official 1982 appearance in his Dodger blues. He emerged from the clubhouse into the bright Vero Beach, Fla. sunshine and began breaststroking his way through a crowd of newsmen, cameramen and Fernandomaniacs. To the rescue came Traveling Secretary Billy DeLury, driving golf cart No. 25. Valenzuela climbed into the shotgun seat and Manager Lasorda onto the back, and off they went down Vin Scully Way. At Duke Snider Road, the cart turned right.
Valenzuela had arrived in Dodgertown the previous night, ending his month-long holdout. After conferring with his agent, Tony DeMarco, and his lawyer, Dick Moss, Valenzuela decided to join his teammates without agreeing to the Dodgers' latest offer, of $350,000 for the season plus $100,000 in incentives. Last year at this time, Valenzuela was a rookie with a $42,500 salary. But that was 13 victories, 11 sellouts at Dodger Stadium and one Cy Young Award ago. Now the President wants to know how Fernando is.
Valenzuela disembarked from the golf cart and joined his teammates in calisthenics in rightfield of Holman Stadium. Never have stretching exercises been so intensely watched by so many. At 10:30 he wiped his brow for the first time. Exercises over, the Dodgers began running, first forward and then backward, symbolically re-creating Valenzuela's negotiation process. They then jogged around the field, Fernando finishing 28th in the field of 33.
He went out to leftfield to play catch with Pitcher Steve Howe. They also kicked the ball around for a bit. At 10:55 Valenzuela began warming up in the bullpen with Catcher Bill Sobbe. At 10:59 Sobbe's glove popped for the first time. One pitch later, Tony Segreto of WTVJ in Miami became the first person to ask Pitching Coach Ron Perranoski, "How's he throwing?" At 11:03 Valenzuela delivered his first curve.
Later Sobbe talked about the historic warmup. "It was pure luck that I was the one to catch him," he said. "Gilberto Reyes [another young catcher] wanted to catch BP first, so I went to the bullpen. Fernando threw about 45 pitches, a lot of fastballs, a few curves, a few screwballs.
"You know, I caught him a couple of years ago in the Arizona Instructional League. He was pretty good then, but I didn't figure the whole world would be waiting on his words. But I guess that's the way the world is today."
At 11:07 Valenzuela began throwing batting practice to Pedro Guerrero, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey and Steve Yeager. He worked for 12 minutes, and the results were mixed: Guerrero took his roommate deep, but Cey and Yeager had their bats broken. "He threw just fastballs," said Garvey. "He threw hard, maybe harder than he should have, probably because of the excitement."
Batting practice done with, Valenzuela walked out of the stadium to the strains of James Taylor's Mexico over the loudspeaker. He strolled back to the clubhouse to have his arm iced down. We'll spare you the hoary details.
At 11:45 he reemerged to begin running in the outfield of Field No. 1. In between sprints he signed the usual assortment of balls and programs, plus two oil paintings of his truly and the lid of a garbage can. At 12:25 he went back inside to shower and dress. His first workout over, Valenzuela walked down Roy Campanella Drive toward his room.
Many people think that Valenzuela is being led down Primrose Path by his advisers. Newspaper polls in Los Angeles indicated that even the Latin community had turned against him. Actually, most of the anger has been directed toward DeMarco, a former entertainer and disc jockey with a considerable sense of his own importance, who isn't a popular figure among L.A.'s Latinos. It remains to be seen whether DeMarco's egomania will ruin Fernandomania.
Valenzuela's negotiations with the Dodgers turned ugly when they really didn't have to. At first owner Peter O'Malley was offering $300,000 and DeMarco was asking $1 million. Now the Dodgers, who aren't crazy about offering incentive clauses, have tendered $350,000 with bonuses of $25,000 each for 30 starts, 35 starts, 250 innings and 275 innings. If Valenzuela were to earn the $450,000 maximum, he would be the highest-paid second-year player in the history of baseball and the third-highest-paid Dodger, behind Dave Goltz and Dusty Baker. Valenzuela's advisers would probably accept a $450,000 base salary with $200,000 in incentives.
With spring training time running out and negotiations at an impasse, the Dodgers threatened Valenzuela with disciplinary action if he didn't show up in camp by March 23. At a news conference in Los Angeles the day before that deadline, Valenzuela said he would report but wouldn't sign a new contract. Reading from a prepared statement, he said, "We have been treated like children. I am only 21, but I am a man to be considered with dignity." Observers at the press conference said that Valenzuela stumbled over the words, the implication being that he was reading them for the first time.
The next morning Valenzuela, dressed in a black suit and a white shirt open at the collar, boarded Eastern Flight 82 from Los Angeles to Atlanta. He was accompanied by his close friend and DeMarco's chauffeur-bodyguard Piesaliano Villanueva, better known as Chino. Valenzuela slept most of the way. They were supposed to switch in Atlanta to Eastern 625 to Melbourne, Fla. but decided to take Eastern 293 to West Palm Beach instead.
At the West Palm airport, Villanueva rented a white, four-door Ford Fairmont, Florida license ZJJ 505, from Hertz. He had a little trouble getting the car because he left his wallet back in Los Angeles. At 9:35 p.m. Chino and Fernando turned in at Jackie Robinson Drive, took a left at Sandy Koufax Lane and parked.
The first Dodgers Valenzuela met were fellow pitchers Tom Niedenfuer and Bob Welch, and they exchanged a hearty and somewhat complicated sequence of slaps and handshakes. Then Valenzuela went to the reception desk to pick up the key for Room 105. He said "Thank you" in English to receptionist Amy Gaesser. He was greeted in 105 by Guerrero, Reyes and Pitcher Alejandro Pena. He begged off any interviews, saying he was tired, and put the Do NOT DISTURB sign on his door. This miffed waiting reporters, who could hear loud music coming from the room. Dodger publicist Steve Brener and broadcaster-interpreter Jaime Jarrin entered the room and arranged a press conference for nine the next morning.
That session was held in the Sandy Koufax Conference Room, which is named for another great lefthanded holdout. Lasorda greeted Valenzuela warmly and in Spanish. "I just wanted him to know how happy I was to have him in camp," Lasorda said. With Jarrin translating questions and answers for an assembly of 58, Fernando said he was happy to be back with his teammates, that he would refer all contract questions to his agent and his attorney, that he had no regrets, that he didn't think his image was tarnished but that he respected the opinion of his people, and that he was happy to be back with his teammates.
As to when Valenzuela would be able to pitch in a game, Lasorda would only say, "Your guess is as good as mine." Valenzuela was undoubtedly helped by playing winter ball in the Mexican League and will pitch batting practice every other day, but he probably won't work under competitive conditions until the Freeway Series with the Angels on April 2-4. His first start is projected for either April 11 at home against the Padres or April 12 on the road against the Astros.
Valenzuela's teammates had gotten very tired of Fernando questions by the time he walked into the clubhouse Wednesday morning, but as Outfielder Jay Johnstone said, "He's fat, he's got pimples on his face, he can't speak English, he's ugly—and we're glad to have him back." A short time later Valenzuela stepped out into the sunlight to face the fans, the lenses and the two news helicopters parked on the grounds for the blessed event, all proof positive that Fernando is worth at least a million dollars to the Dodgers. If they won't pay him that sum, the least they can do is name the Dodgertown press room after him.