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DODGERS : Sentiment Is Gone for Valenzuela, Whose Business Is Pitching

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the romance has not completely disappeared, then it is as faded as Fernando Valenzuela’s smile.

The Dodgers’ former favorite son goes about his business as if it were a business. He works hard, speaks quietly, behaves like a man wearing this blue-trimmed uniform for the first time.

He wonders if he is wearing it for the last time.

“I know I haven’t helped the Dodgers win much in the last three years,” said Valenzuela, in his 12th season. “If I can’t do that anymore, then I’m retiring. There is no reason for me to keep pitching.

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“This year could be my last year. Or maybe I go five or six more years. At this point, I just don’t know.”

Many thought Valenzuela had already pitched his final innings as a Dodger. One was Valenzuela.

“In the beginning of the winter, I didn’t think I would be here,” he said. “I thought there was no chance.”

He had lost several important September games. Despite a mid-season no-hitter against St. Louis, he wound up 13-13 with the second-worst earned-run average among National League starters at 4.59. In the last three years he has gone 28-34 with a 4.08 ERA.

When the Dodgers made no overtures to re-sign him, he planned on joining another team in the National League West, perhaps San Diego or Houston. Interest was expressed by those clubs, though no offer near that of the Dodgers was generated.

Still, even when the club offered Valenzuela arbitration in early December, it was thought that the Dodgers were only ensuring themselves of compensation when Valenzuela signed with another team.

But Valenzuela accepted the arbitration offer and eventually agreed to a contract paying him $2.55 million.

“Peter O’Malley had a lot to do with me coming back,” Valenzuela said, referring to the Dodger owner. “He let it be known through other people that he wanted me. He doesn’t think of baseball as just a business, he thinks of it as family. He made me feel wanted.”

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But Valenzuela said it is too late for him to think of baseball as anything but a business. He said he was prepared to leave the Dodgers two months ago and would be prepared to after this season.

“I want to be with somebody who needs me,” he said. “I like the Dodgers but . . . business is business.”

There is speculation that if Valenzuela does not pitch well early in the season, he will be gone by the All-Star break.

If Orel Hershiser returns from shoulder surgery, one of the current starters will have to go. As the fifth starter, Valenzuela is the logical candidate. And he has confirmed that he cannot pitch in relief.

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“I will play anywhere--outfield, first base, anywhere,” Valenzuela said with a smile. “But my arm is not for the bullpen. When I pitch in the bullpen, one or two innings feels like nine or 10 innings.”

Manager Tom Lasorda knows that and hopes he will not have to face a difficult decision.

“Fernando has been such a great pitcher here . . . we’re hoping he can turn it around,” he said. “We’re really hoping he can do the job for us.”

The Dodgers are hoping that a rare spring trip to Mexico will get Valenzuela off to a good start. Their two-game series in Monterrey in mid-March will mark the first time Valenzuela has pitched in his home country in a decade.

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Even so, Valenzuela said he is going to be all business.

“I know I have to pitch there and that is fine,” said Valenzuela, who worked from a mound Monday for the first time this spring. “But I told the writers down there that I will probably only pitch one or two innings. This is spring training, and I will have to stick to my schedule.

“I hope nobody feels bad. I hope nobody comes to the game late and misses me. But this is what I have to do.”

The agent for Ramon Martinez warned that the Dodger pitcher might be digging in for a long holdout that could involve a legal battle over a contract renewal.

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Martinez and Jay Howell extended their holdouts to four days Monday. Martinez is apparently not close to leaving the Dominican Republic.

“Ramon is not going to show up tomorrow or the next day,” said Jim Bronner on Monday from his Chicago-area office. “He is prepared to sit out until he has a negotiated contract.”

The Dodgers have offered Martinez $400,000, a 167% raise from last season, when he went 20-6 with a 2.92 ERA. Martinez is looking for more than $500,000, but the Dodgers are saying their offer is already the highest in baseball history for a player with less than two full years of experience.

Fred Claire, Dodger vice president, indicated he probably would renew Martinez’s contract unilaterally on March 2, the earliest possible date for renewal of players with less than three full years’ experience.

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“But a renewal is not a negotiated contract,” Bronner said. “We are looking at some legal positions we could take in regards to that.”

Dodger Notes

Darryl Strawberry arrived at Dodgertown Monday morning and will report to camp today, one day ahead of schedule. . . . Despite four days of strong workouts, Jeff Hamilton reported Monday that his surgically repaired right shoulder felt “dead.” Hamilton said he thinks the shoulder is tired from overuse.


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