That wasn't exactly Fernandomania sweeping Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg last Thursday night. But the familiar lefthander in the unfamiliar Baltimore Oriole uniform did get a standing Fernandovation when he walked off the mound in the fifth inning, and most everybody in the place was grinning.
A few minutes before that, most everybody in the place was cringing. Fernando Valenzuela was facing a bases-loaded situation with nobody out and a 3-and-0 count on the batter. What's more, the batter was the reigning World Series MVP, Toronto Blue Jay catcher Pat Borders. Valenzuela's first appearance as an Oriole looked as if it might be his last. He would need a miracle, or at least the great screwball he once had, to get out of the jam.
He threw two cut fastballs that Borders looked at, and the count was full. Then Valenzuela threw the screwball, the old one, and Borders swung and missed. The next batter, Domingo Cedeno, bit on another scroogie and grounded into a double play to end Valenzuela's two innings of shutout relief. The fans cheered, and the Orioles rose from the bench to congratulate him en masse.
"That was a great thing to see, especially in a spring training game," said Baltimore manager Johnny Oates. "However, I don't believe any pitchers were on the top step of the dugout to greet him."
Indeed, the 32-year-old Valenzuela is one of several pitchers fighting for a job on the Oriole staff, and his stock went up again with a strong outing on Monday. He threw three scoreless innings against the Minnesota Twins, giving up just one hit and one walk. The Orioles could use a fifth starter, and they could do worse than to have a former Cy Young Award winner with 141 career victories in that role—if Valenzuela still has some stuff left.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge and a lot of pitches have been thrown since Fernando burst onto the scene in 1981. Back then he was El Natural of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a sort of Mexican Babe Ruth who could pitch and hit. He came complete with baby fat and veteran skills, and if he knew how to speak English, he wasn't saying. For eight seasons the Dodgers sent him out every fifth day, sometimes for as many as 140 pitches, and by the spring of 1991, when they released him, his arm was tostado. The California Angels brought him back for two games that summer, then dropped him. Last year Valenzuela returned whence he came, the Mexican League.
So that was where his career stood—bases loaded, nobody out, 3-and-0 count on the batter—when he made a surprise appearance for Mexico in the Caribbean Series in Mazatlàn in early February. His screwball was back, and his fastball was in the 80's again, so he opened the eyes of several scouts, one of whom was Fred Uhlman Sr. of the Orioles.
This is the same Fred Uhlman Sr. who, in making an offhand remark to a reporter that appeared in USA Today recently, said that because of genetics, Mexicans "have bad foot speed," a comment that has several Hispanic-American political organizations calling for his dismissal. It was at the end of a conference call, during which Oriole executives reprimanded Uhlman for his remark, that the scout was, coincidentally, asked about Valenzuela. According to Roland Hemond, the Baltimore general manager, "Fred said we should sign him, that he was better than a lot of pitchers in the majors." So on Feb. 27 the Orioles signed Valenzuela to a minor league contract, promising him every opportunity to make the team.
Valenzuela's baby fat is long gone, and his English is quite good. Asked the other day if he liked the Oriole uniform, he said, "Well, I like the colors, black and orange and white, but what I really like is that it is a major league uniform."