FERNANDO’S SCREWBALL ISN’T QUITE AS SCREWY ANYMORE : Trying to Get the Snap Back
Business usually is slow on weekday afternoons at a ticket office adjacent to Dodger Stadium. Anyone who doesn’t already have tickets can walk up minutes before game time and get seats.
On this day, though, a line about 15 deep of mostly Latino fans formed about four hours before the first pitch. Along Stadium Way, two scalpers displayed tickets to passing motorists.
Obviously, Fernando Valenzuela was due to pitch. Fans were making another pilgrimage to catch the Dodger left-hander’s act, as they have been doing faithfully since the onset of Fernandomania in 1981. The mania may have settled into something less hysterical, but Valenzuela’s ability to put fans in the seats has endured.
But others were interested in Valenzuela’s start against the Houston Astros that night for another reason. They had come to see if the reports of Valenzuela’s demise were true. They had come to see if, as was the case in his previous two home starts, he would exit in failure before the end of the third inning. To see if his screwball really had flattened out and his fastball fattened up. To see if, astonishingly, a fickle fringe of Dodger Stadium fans would boo him for the fourth straight time.
Well, they didn’t. On that night, pitching like the great Fernando of old, Valenzuela spun a six-hitter. A standing ovation and his first home victory were Valenzuela’s rewards.
But the doubts and doubters remain, mostly because Valenzuela recently has had more bad outings than good. His defeats outweigh his victories this season and his earned-run average is up, for the second straight season.
The usual theories to explain his slide have been offered: His arm is sore. . . . His shoulder stiffness has returned. . . . All those innings pitched over all those years have simply worn him out. . . . His father’s serious illness has affected his concentration. . . . Opposing hitters have solved the Valenzuela mystique by not swinging at those tantalizing screwballs outside the strike zone. . . . He needs glasses while pitching as well as hitting. . . .
But something, for sure, had to be wrong.
Tonight, Valenzuela will try for his second straight strong performance when he pitches against the Atlanta Braves at Fulton County Stadium. This may be his most important start yet, in terms of showing some semblance of consistency.
After two straight poor outings in mid-May, including the shortest of his career--1 innings against the New York Mets--Valenzuela ended the month with a strong 9-inning, 5-hit non-decision in Montreal. But then he lasted only 2 innings in his next start. So, optimism was tempered after Valenzuela’s win over the Astros last Wednesday.
“What this is is a slump,” Manager Tom Lasorda said. “Hitters have them all the time. Why can’t pitchers? It’s going to take a few games to get his timing and location back. We hope this is the start of something good for him.”
But even so confirmed an optimist as Lasorda admits concern when presented Valenzuela’s statistics: 11 starts, a 4-5 record, a 3.70 ERA and more walks, 43, than strikeouts, 35.
“I’m worried,” Lasorda said.
Although Valenzuela’s quick success and sustained excellence have probably heightened expectations, many of his performances the last two seasons would be cause for concern even for pitchers without so celebrated a past.
If Valenzuela, 28, is among them, though, he keeps it to himself. “Maybe people expect me to win all my games,” he said. “I have bad games, too. I have not pitched good. We’re all human. Everybody has bad days.”
Still, the theories--and rumors--persist: --He’s hurt.
After each of Valenzuela’s starts, good or bad, the first thing he says to reporters is: “My arm feels fine.” It has become something of a routine: Hi, Freddy, how you doing? ... My arm is fine.
Dodger trainers say that Valenzuela has not complained of stiffness or soreness in either his left elbow or shoulder. They said the same thing last season, but Valenzuela confirmed during spring training that he experienced shoulder stiffness during the first half of last season.
Valenzuela does not always tell Lasorda or the trainers when he is not completely fit. In 1985, Lasorda told The Times’ Mike Downey: “Fernando could be dying, and he’ll go nine innings.”
Valenzuela said that he does not hide injuries.
“If I’m hurt, I tell Tommy or the coaches,” he said. “I get tired of hearing (questions) about my arm, but I know why you ask. You see me lose a game, you ask about it.”
Said Pat Screnar, the Dodgers’ physical therapist: “We aren’t treating him for anything. He does his regular treatments and conditioning, like all the pitchers. No special program.
“Sure, (injuries) are the first thing people mention when something goes wrong. We’re used to hearing it. But he’d tell us. In the past, he’d have an ankle or a foot or a shoulder problem, and he would tell us. I’m sure he’d let us know if there was something wrong.”
Trainer Bill Buhler said he has developed a way of determining the fitness of Valenzuela’s arm without the pitcher having to come forward. Buhler said that when Valenzuela is talkative and clowning, he is fine. When he is quiet, he is hurting.
So far, Buhler said, he has not heard the sound of silence from Valenzuela.
--He has pitched too many innings.
All Don Sutton, the Dodgers’ 43-year-old pitcher and sage, needed were a calculator and a media guide to, in his mind, shoot down this theory. After punching in a few numbers, Sutton determined that Valenzuela pitched 1,788 innings in his first seven major league seasons, whereas Sutton had pitched 1,831 in his first seven seasons.
“And look, they can’t get rid of me,” Sutton said.
Pitchers, of course, cannot be so easily categorized. But, as Sutton pointed out, many are still throwing well into their 40s and still log many innings.
But in the last six seasons, Valenzuela has pitched more innings, 1,595, than any other major league pitcher. Only Jack Morris, at 1,590, is close.
Valenzuela has pitched professionally since he was 17. In eight seasons, he has never missed a start and has averaged 257 innings a season. Until this season, Valenzuela was known for routinely throwing 130-150 pitches a game. So, in his Dodger career alone, he has thrown an estimated 30,000 pitches.
The argument goes that throwing a screwball, Valenzuela’s most reliable pitch, has put an unusual strain on his elbow and forearm, a contention that Screnar disputes. “If you analyze it, throwing a screwball, your arm finishes in a more natural position than a curveball or something,” Screnar said. “Whether it puts more strain on the arm, it’s hard to say.”
A screwball is thrown by turning the wrist and elbow to the outside, away from the body. If thrown right, the ball breaks away from right-handed hitters. When a pitcher throws a curveball--or, for that matter, a fastball--the arm comes across the body, which Screnar says is an unnatural motion.
“I think a slider is more of a strain, really,” Screnar said. “But I guess it doesn’t matter what you throw, because throwing enough of anything puts a strain on the arm.”
It is not as if Valenzuela is verging on decrepitude. Still, in his younger days his recovery time between starts was much shorter and he could afford to carry extra weight without it affecting his performances.
The last two years, however, Valenzuela has lost considerable weight and, Screnar says, is in the best shape of his career. But it wasn’t until his early season slump in 1987 that Dodger trainers persuaded him to participate in a light weightlifting program between starts, which was standard procedure for all of the Dodgers’ other starting pitchers.
Screnar said: “He works hard at it. . . . He has told me that, since he’s in better shape, it’s easier for him to warm up.” Valenzuela said the suggestion that he is overworked is itself overworked.
“When I lose, there are no excuses,” he said. “All the time, I feel I have good stuff, but nothing (good) happens. I’d rather feel bad and win games.”
--He can’t fool hitters anymore.
Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser once said that Valenzuela does not merely strike out batters, he puts them in slumps.
The dips and swirls of Valenzuela’s screwball have persuaded many a batter to swing at a pitch that ends up low and away. A typical Valenzuela strikeout was culminated either by a hitter watching a called third strike on the outside corner of the plate or lunging at a low pitch.
After only a season or two, batters learned to lay off the pitch. In turn, Valenzuela adapted. Now though, because Valenzuela has suffered lapses in control, opponents are making him throw strikes.
“That’s what happens when you’ve been around the league awhile,” said Houston Astros catcher Alex Trevino, who was the Dodgers’ backup catcher last season. “Teams have learned to hit him.”
Said Ron Perranoski, the Dodgers’ pitching coach: “I certainly agree with that. But what Fernando has to do is throw strikes early in the count. That way, they have to chase the screwball or risk striking out.”
--His personal problems have affected him.
Always a private person, Valenzuela rarely lets on if something is troubling him.
That is why, for almost a week, most of his teammates did not know that his father, Huelino, was diagnosed as having cancer and moved from Mexico to Los Angeles to live with Fernando and undergo radiation treatments.
Brian Holton, a Dodger relief pitcher who has known Valenzuela since they were teammates in double-A ball in San Antonio in 1980, was one of the few in whom Valenzuela confided. But, Holton said, Valenzuela did not exactly bare his soul. Holton said Fernando mentioned it once. “He’s only human,” Holton said. “It’s got to be bothering him inside. I’ve never met anyone like Fernando. It must take a lot of will to keep pitching when he’s going through what he is with his father.”
Valenzuela said he will not publicly discuss any aspect of his personal life.
Said Tony DeMarco, Valenzuela’s agent: “The tragedy right now for Fernando is his father. If I was in Fernando’s position, I know my stomach would be in knots with what he’s going through.
“He’s known about the thing with his father longer than when it was written in the newspaper. People who watch him don’t know that. I think it’s bothered him very much. He evaded the question when I asked him. You live your whole life and never see your father sick. And then . . . It’s difficult.
“He’s quiet. He doesn’t outwardly tell people he’s close to that he loves them, like you or I do. Maybe it’s his upbringing. He won’t use this as an excuse. He just said, ‘I have good games and bad games, like everyone else.’ ”
--He needs glasses.
At first, Valenzuela said he needed glasses only to see the ball while hitting and that he can see the plate and the catcher’s glove just fine without them.
But before one start about a month ago, Valenzuela warmed up in the bullpen wearing his specs. He said that the wire rims interfered with his peripheral vision and hindered his habit of looking skyward during his delivery.
Contact lenses, apparently, are not an option.
But last week, Valenzuela was fitted with a pair of “athletic glasses,” similar to those that Dodger outfielder Mike Davis wears.
“He may try them in his next start,” Fred Claire, the Dodgers’ executive vice president, said last week. “It’s up to Fernando.”
To Perranoski, Valenzuela’s problem is not an injury, a problem at home, a need for glasses or uncontrollable wildness.
Perranoski believes that somewhere in the mechanics of Valenzuela’s delivery, a glitch has developed. Using videotapes and first-hand observation, he has dissected Valenzuela’s delivery and detected flaws he says can be corrected.
Perranoski will not say precisely what flaws he has found, but it is known that Perranoski has told Valenzuela that his right leg is too straight when he plants. “It affects his whole rhythm,” Perranoski said. “His follow-through has been his biggest problem. I hate to pinpoint one thing, because something else might crop up that’s related to it. But it’s all related to rhythm.”
Perranoski said that Valenzuela has been a conscientious student since he overcame a mental block against changing his delivery so late in his career.
“It’s the most difficult thing to do for a veteran pitcher,” Perranoski said. “But he’s the most capable of doing it. I’ve seen him pick things up from scratch when he was a kid in the minors. You only had to tell him once.
“Sometimes, a lot of experience is detrimental in a way. You expect something right away to work because you’ve had success before. It can get frustrating. And he has been frustrated.”
So far, retention would seem to be Valenzuela’s main problem. He effectively implemented the adjustments in his delivery in his 9-inning effort in Montreal, but apparently didn’t carry them over in his 2-inning stint against Cincinnati.
“It’s hard to get that consistency,” Perranoski said. “But I think it’s coming.”
Said Valenzuela: “Ever since the season starts, I work hard between starts. I feel good between starts, like I know what to (correct).
“Sometimes, this game can make you crazy. You think too much. I know there are things I have to do. I’m working on them, but . . . “
Results may be different these days, but Valenzuela is still the same unflappable, unassuming man at 28 that he was as a kid of 19.
“Fernando is Fernando,” DeMarco said. “He’s very Mexican. Maybe stoic is a better word. It has to do with his upbringing. He’ll never change.”
His $2.05-million salary notwithstanding, DeMarco and others close to Valenzuela say he leads a simple life. DeMarco said he is worried that people will get the mistaken idea that Valenzuela has lost his drive since accumulating riches.
“He is not living like a rich man,” DeMarco said. “He takes care of his family. But he lives like a normal person. He has problems that you and I have.”
The biggest problem, according to those close to Valenzuela, is that the public and media expect too much from him.
“People have to understand he’s a human being,” said Dodger scout Mike Brito, who signed Valenzuela and is a friend. “Fernando is a big name. People want him to have an outstanding outing every time.”
Said catcher Mike Scioscia: “Fernando had such a great start (to his career) that people put expectations way up there. He’s human, too. He’s prone to slumps. He won only 14 games last year in an off year. That’s like Tony Gwynn hitting maybe .301. For him, that’s an off year. But I know a lot of pitchers that would love to win 14 games in an off year.”
Holton, who has known Valenzuela since 1980, said he has never seen him so intense.
“Right now, he’s working harder than anyone on the team, harder than anyone’s seen him,” Holton said. “He and Perry are out there every day. It seems like everything was handed to him and that he had so much God-given talent. But he works hard. He fools you.
“I remember one day last spring, me, (Bob) Welch and Freddy went out running about 5 miles just to see if we were in good shape. I mean, with Freddy’s body, you expect him to be huffing and puffing and trying hard to keep up. But he was cruising ahead of us, and I had a problem keeping up. He’s an amazing guy.”
Obviously, though, even amazing guys get booed when they perform less than amazingly over a period of time.
“Nobody’s perfect,” Valenzuela said. “Sometimes, they expect too much. In ‘84, they did the same thing a few times. You have to take everything they give you.”
But the booing has not gone unnoticed by Valenzuela’s friends.
“For all he’s done for this city and the Latin community, I was shocked when they did that,” Holton said. “But typical Freddy: He didn’t come in and throw his glove, or give the fans (an obscene gesture), even though I know he was upset by it.”
Said Brito: “Maybe those people don’t know what’s going on with his father. It’s very serious. If they know, they don’t boo.”
DeMarco said the negative reaction has come only from a small segment of fans and that the adulation of most fans endures.
“He still has that charisma that he had during Fernandomania ,” DeMarco said. “He’s an honest man. He always does his best. Fans know that. They know that Fernando feels a responsibility to do his best every time. To stand and deliver.”
Imagine Fernando Valenzuela in Yankee pinstripes. Or Fernando throwing the split-finger screwball for Roger Craig in San Francisco. Or Fernando eating bratwurst in Milwaukee.
Well, Valenzuela will be a free agent at season’s end. And, although it would seem certain the Dodgers will sign him again and that he will finish his career in Los Angeles, who knows?
The Dodgers put aside sentimentality and did not re-sign Steve Garvey when they figured his best days had passed and his asking price was too steep.
Could that happen to Valenzuela? Might the Dodgers conclude that Valenzuela’s struggles the last two seasons are a sign of decline?
Nobody is saying.
“I’m not going to comment on that,” Claire said. “We have a number of players up for free agency, and I won’t comment on any of them. It’s a distraction and I don’t see any good in talking about it.”
Said DeMarco: “It’s a mutual silent accord between us. We decided before the season that we would not talk during the season whether he was great or so-so. The time will come. I know the Dodgers. When the time comes, they will deal fairly with us. They have in the past.
“Some of Fernando’s best years are ahead of him. My instincts tell me that he will be back to his old form, that there will be a return to Fernandomania . I truly believe that.”
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