It was with great sadness that I read the recent news from Dodgertown. Fernando Valenzuela was not talking.
The report was brief. Fernando snapped at reporters after a game, saying: “You guys last year, all you talk about is my arm hurt. Now I’m not going to talk to you.”
That day? This spring? Forever?
A baseball player freezing out the press, and therefore freezing out his fans, is hardly news. Roger Clemens, I understand, has put up the “No comment” sign this spring. Almost every team has one or two non-talkers.
It seems to be a rite of passage into superstardom: Become a .280 hitter or 15-game winner, sign a big contract, purchase a luxury automobile, tell reporters to take a flying hike.
Of all sports, baseball has by far the highest per-capita population of non-talkers. With some baseball players, the most you can hope for is that he won’t respond to your question by cursing several generations of your family, or by pushing you backward over a row of seats, as Danny Cox did to a cameraman in an airport.
Then there are guys such as Pedro Guerrero. He once agreed to meet a Dodger writer in the clubhouse at a certain time. Writer showed, waited about an hour at Pedro’s locker, walked away briefly, returned to find Pedro, just arrived.
Pedro to reporter: “You come too late. . . . you.”
The mystery word in the paragraph above is not thank.
OK, that’s baseball.
But Fernando? Say it ain’t so.
This was the last guy I figured would turn on us. He has been a ray of sunshine since he walked into the Dodger clubhouse as a teen-ager in 1980. Shy at first, he quickly became comfortable with reporters, although he needed an interpreter.
You could always count on Fernando for a friendly hello, and he was almost always accessible. His unaffected good nature helped cut through the sometimes serious pall of the clubhouse.
And now word was out that he wasn’t talking. These have to be frustrating times for Fernando, fighting back, at 28, from what may be a career-ending shoulder problem. The prospect of Valenzuela’s not returning to form is sad. The prospect of his turning into a baseball curmudgeon is dismal.
So my first stop at Dodgertown is Fernando’s locker.
“You hear that, it’s not really true,” Valenzuela says when asked about reports that he’s on a speech strike. “There was a little problem, communications.”
It was a slight case of overload. The millionth question about his left shoulder and he snapped, just a little.
“I try to leave in past all the pain I had before,” Fernando explains. “I try to concentrate on what I have to do now. I appreciate (the reporters’ concern). Sometimes it’s too much. But I try to talk.”
Without my asking, he tells me how his arm is.
“My arm feels good, strong. I pitch yesterday (Sunday), my speed not pretty good, but my fastball was down, my location good, and I don’t feel any pain.”
The Dodger speed gun caught Fernando’s so-called fastball at 76 m.p.h. That’s too much hang time, but he doesn’t seem worried.
“I know it will take a long time to come back.”
It’s easy to forget how much Valenzuela has meant to the Dodgers. Orel Hershiser has emerged as the superstar, and Tim Leary is looming as a star. But Fernando is the Dodger pitcher of the decade.
One annual baseball magazine assembled a panel of scouts, former players and magazine staff writers to select the best ballplayers of the 1980s. A player needed four seasons in the bigs to qualify. The No. 1 left-handed starter on the all-80s team is Fernando. Jack Morris of the Tigers is the rightie.
Along with that artistic substance, this uneducated kid from the suburbs of the sticks in the Mexican desert has eluded many of the traps set for superstars. He and his wife, Linda, have three children, and Fernando has become a big-time role model for kids all up and down this hemisphere.
He is serious about making a comeback, so he lifted weights all winter, three days a week.
He also played a lot of golf, shooting in the low 80s.
“You don’t worry about nothing when you golf,” Fernando says, thereby providing an insight into his temperament.
Golf is the second-most worrisome game there is. Russian roulette is No. 1, but some golfers would argue that in Russian roulette, you don’t have to remember to keep your left arm straight. Even Gandhi would have thrown a golf club or two.
Apparently Fernando the linkster has tapped into the same unique strain of Mexican Zen that brings him inner peace on the mound. Even as a teen-ager, barely in shoes, he was unfazed by the frenzied attention of 50,000 fans.
Maybe during his golf swing, as during his pitching delivery, Fernando looks toward the heavens.
He’ll need some kind of good karma/luck or divine intervention if he is to return to former greatness.
“I’m still there,” he says, referring to the Dodger rotation, not to the top level of pitchers. “My arm feel good. I think I can come back and do the job again. . . . I think this year will be big year for me. I need to come back and help my team again.”
The tendency at this particular keyboard is to root for the guy to come back. Win 20 games again. Thirty, even.
Whatever his fate, I feel better about baseball this season knowing that Fernando is still talking.