The first nine pitches were balls, and the natives were getting restless. Fernando Valenzuela’s screwballs may not have been biting Monday afternoon, but the fans were.
One paying customer, his patience with Valenzuela’s attempted comeback apparently exhausted three batters into spring, loudly pronounced judgment on the Dodger left-hander in a voice that easily carried to the Holman Stadium mound, if not the center-field wall.
“Let him practice on his own time,” bellowed the fan, perhaps mistaking Monday’s exhibition between the Dodgers and Montreal Expos for the seventh game of the National League playoffs.
For Valenzuela, of course, this was practice, the first semi-significant indication of whether his left shoulder has some quality pitches left in it. The Dodgers are gambling $1.85 million--the amount for which they signed Valenzuela last winter--that it does.
On the surface Monday, the return on that investment was hardly promising. In two innings, Valenzuela gave up seven runs on six hits. He walked four batters and threw a wild pitch. He threw a home run pitch to Marquis Grissom, a 21-year-old non-roster player who is not related to Marv Grissom, Gus Grissom, or the Marquis de Sade.
And on top of that, Valenzuela couldn’t get his signals straight with catcher Rick Dempsey, which led to the confounding scene of a pitcher shaking off three straight signs in the first inning of an exhibition game.
“That’s when you saw him falling off the mound, giving that disgusted look, but what can you do?” said Dempsey, who wound up speaking the same language as Valenzuela after huddling with the pitcher between innings.
But whatever agitation Valenzuela felt on the field--after the Expos’ five-run first inning, he flipped his glove and slammed a towel down on the Dodgers’ bench--it was long gone by the time he had finished icing his arm after his 63-pitch outing.
“It looks like you guys are waiting for somebody to commit suicide,” Mickey Hatcher said to reporters assembled near Valenzuela’s clubhouse cubicle.
The only razor blade Valenzuela was reaching for, however, was the one he uses for trimming his mustache.
“I don’t worry about my arm anymore,” Valenzuela said. “I just worry about throwing strikes.”
Valenzuela paid little heed to his arm, at least publicly, until it gave out on him last July 30, when he left a game in Houston and was put on the disabled list the next day.
The pitcher who had not thrown fewer than 250 innings in a season since his rookie year, 1981, had to face the reality that he was going to miss a turn for the first time in 255 starts.
Frank Jobe, the Dodgers’ team physician, described the injury as a stretched anterior capsule in Valenzuela’s left shoulder, which is the area in the shoulder that encloses the joint and ligaments. In layman’s terms, the shoulder was shot from too many screwballs in too many innings in too many complete games.
“We ran a little risk not operating on his shoulder,” Jobe said. “But you’re 100%, 200%, 300% better off when you can avoid operating.”
Instead of surgery, Jobe prescribed a series of rehabilitative exercises and by the end of last September, Valenzuela had progressed far enough to toss three innings in a start in San Diego, then four more innings of relief last Oct. 1, his final appearance in a season in which he finished with a 5-8 record and a 4.24 earned-run average.
When the Dodgers arrived in camp this spring, Jobe expressed confidence that Valenzuela would be ready to pitch come opening day.
“Fernando has certainly become a role model for exercise and keeping in shape,” Jobe said, startling words for anyone who remembers the long-ago fuss about Valenzuela’s waistline. “He has done everything that can possibly be done and is following in the footsteps of Alejandro Pena.”
Pena came back from arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder and two full years of rehabilitation to become a first-rate short reliever.
“My opinion is Fernando is going to be successful, just like Alejandro,” Jobe said.
Valenzuela said that after a winter of lifting weights, his arm feels much stronger.
“I like to pitch,” he said. “If my arm had hurt in 1986 or 1987, I would have stopped pitching. But I never had any problem.
“Finally, last year I had pain in my shoulder and I have to stop. Good. I need to rest a little bit. Now I am coming back strong.”
Valenzuela said he would have liked to have had better control Monday, but otherwise was encouraged that he felt no pain. Still to be determined, of course, is how his arm feels the day after.
“My arm felt old the last three years,” he said. “But now it feels like new.”
None of Valenzuela’s pitches exceeded 80 m.p.h., according to the radar gun, which came as something of a surprise to catcher Dempsey.
“He threw good pitches at times, and went with all of his pitches,” Dempsey said. “His screwball was excellent. On his first strikeout (Grissom), he threw two of the best screwballs I’ve seen him throw in a long time.
“You could see a big difference in his fastball. He wanted to throw more fastballs than I called. The encouraging thing was he made some good pitches. He just has to become more consistent with his location.
“He’s always had great control, and it’s to be expected that he wouldn’t have that control until he’s rehabilitated.
“He’s not going to let people bang him around like they did today. He’ll be all right.”
And Valenzuela will be the same pitcher, too--or so he says.
“I won’t change anything,” he said. “I’ll use the same stuff. I’ll just throw less pitches. That’s the big difference.”
The Dodgers, on the verge of losing their fourth straight exhibition game without a victory, scored eight runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat Montreal, 15-12. Jose Gonzalez won the game with a grand slam off former Chicago Cub Jay Baller. . . . Mariano Duncan, who started at shortstop in place of Alfredo Griffin, had three hits, including a home run. . . . Alejandro Pena got the win with two innings of scoreless relief, striking out three. . . . The Dodgers play the New York Yankees in an exhibition tonight in Ft. Lauderdale.