The Brewers' Teodoro Valenzuela Higuera has much in common with his middle-namesake. Like Fernando of the Dodgers, he's a stubby southpaw from Mexico's western plains and, pelota en mano, has the mien of an Inca warrior.
Unlike the famed Freddie, however, Teddy delivers no photogenic glance to the heavens in his windup, owns just one home instead of three and toils far from the madding Mexicanos of Los Angeles. Milwaukee does not have much of a Mexican populace, but Higuera is still stirring some national pride way north of the border. "I'm half Mexican on my mother's side, but I never made a big deal out of it," says Brewer trainer John Adam. "Now, with Teddy, I'm a born-again Chicano."
In a pitching comparison with Valenzuela, Higuera at least rates a Mexican standoff: Each is arguably the best lefthander in his league. The Brewer ace leads AL lefties in W's (he's 10-6), K's (114) and ERA (2.57). Of Higuera's 18 starts this season, 14 have been quality starts, i.e., three or fewer earned runs allowed in six or more innings. He has helped the Brewers, who were almost universally written off at the start of the season, to stay in the six-pack chasing the Red Sox in the AL East.
"The thing about Teddy is he's a perfectionist," says the Milwaukee pitching coach, Herm Starrette. That quality, which makes him so commanding as a pitcher, also keeps the engaging Higuera, 27, from doing interviews in his still awkward English. In his rookie season last year, his first words during meetings on the mound were: "No problem." Limited maybe, but Higuera must have known what he was talking about because he won 15 games and the AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year Award. This season he has become a bit more expansive on the field and with the press, but his most revealing remarks are still in Spanish. When asked in his native language if he felt any pressure, Higuera replied, "No more than marbles or shooting pool."
Higuera could not embrace the game of baseball until he was 18. His father, Abelino, a farmer and cattle rancher in Los Mochis (pop. 118,631), near the Gulf of California coast, would not let him play ball until his last year of high school. Then, in Higuera's third game—what's Spanish for Roy Hobbs?—he struck out 21. In 1979, after two years of amateur ball in Chihuahua, Higuera turned pro and joined Ciudad Juàrez in the Mexican League, only five days after the death of his father.
While with Juàrez he dueled Valenzuela, who was pitching for Yucatàn. Higuera lost 3-1. "Fernando is a great pitcher," Teddy says now. "He also gave a lot of exposure to Mexican players." And how. Following Fernandomania, the bird dogs flocked to the Liga Mexicana. The Brewers, angling for talent while battling the budget, established a working agreement with Juàrez and two other clubs. Milwaukee would loan the clubs a dozen able farmhands in return for the right of first refusal for their Mexican players. "We wanted Teddy, but so did everybody else," says Ray Poitevint, who was the Brewers' scouting director at the time. "He threw harder, and his breaking pitch was better than Fernando's." Despite several six-figure offers, the Juàrez owners, because of their previous agreement with the Brewers, sold Higuera's contract to Milwaukee for $65,000 in 1983.
Higuera began the '85 season as the Brewers' fifth starter, and struggled. Starrette decided that Higuera was throwing too many pitches with too little effect, so he disarmed the lefty of his curve and screwball, leaving Higuera with a 90-mph fastball, a straight change and a tight, biting slider. Higuera's control improved. Today, he'll spot any of the three pitches at any point in the count. "Catching Teddy is like sitting in a rocking chair," says his personal backstop, Charlie Moore.
Backing Higuera in the County Stadium stands is Teo Jr., 5, who dresses in a Brewers' uniform every time his dad pitches at home. Junior has an amazing ability to imitate batting stances and pitching deliveries, and when coaxed, will fire up an imaginary curve. But Dad is keeping the old Valenzuelan screwball to himself. When asked when he might throw it next in a game, Higuera shifts to English: "Maybe next year."
Look out, Liga Americana.