Before the end of spring training, the Dodgers may trade or release pitcher Fernando Valenzuela.
But after Sunday, they won’t be able to do it without remembering the screams, the bells, the shrill whistles--all sounds of a 27,000-seat stadium passing along a love note to a hero.
They won’t be able to do it without remembering the sight of proud Valenzuela, pitching in Mexico for the first time in 10 years, showing his countrymen he hasn’t forgotten 1981, either.
The only thing stronger than Valenzuela’s curveball was his emotion, and for five innings he threw both at the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday, shutting them down on two hits and one run and adding a run-scoring single as the Dodgers won, 6-1.
It was only an exhibition. But to those who understand Valenzuela’s search for shreds of Fernandomania, it was much more.
“We knew Fernando’s importance to his country before we came down here, but to see it, to feel, to hear it . . . it was an extraordinary moment,” said Peter O’Malley, the Dodger owner who had a front row seat at Estadia Monterrey. “This is one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had since I’ve been with the ballclub.”
Fred Claire, the Dodgers’ vice president who will decide Valenzuela’s fate on an overstuffed pitching staff, called the afternoon, “gratifying.”
“It’s not just great to see him pitch like this in his country, but it’s great to see him pitch like this, period,” Claire said from his seat behind home plate. “Even in his best years, he would not pitch like this in spring training.”
Sitting in a training room with ice on his shoulder and elbow, Valenzuela’s smile was warm.
“I think today was a little more important to me than a usual game,” he said after facing 16 hitters, one over the minimum for five innings. “It was important for me to come back here and show the people what is going on--show the people that my arm is fine.
“There were people today who came a long way from Sonora (his home state). They shouted to me, ‘We still remember you!’ Today was so nice.”
And Valenzuela’s stuff was so nasty, though he was so fidgety before the game. He didn’t appear on the field until 20 minutes before his first pitch, and he needed a visit from catcher Mike Scioscia in the first inning to calm him down.
But after that, Valenzuela pitched quite unlike a man whose earned-run average of 4.59 was the worst among National Leaguers with more than 30 starts last year.
In the second inning he struck out the first two batters, including Greg Vaughn on a curveball that had such bite, the home plate umpire leaped with his call.
One inning later, he came to the plate with two outs and Alfredo Griffin on second base. Valenzuela, who thrilled the fans Saturday with a batting-practice home run, lined a pitch from Chris Bosio into center field for a run-scoring single.
When Mike Felder bobbled the ball, Valenzuela chugged into second base while a man in the left field stands pounded drums and the stadium shook.
“The way I played, I think the people enjoyed it a little bit,” Valenzuela said. “I think they now believe a little bit.”
But do the Dodgers believe? Because they have paid little much attention to Valenzuela’s traditionally poor spring training statistics, it is not likely that one good outing will change their opinion.
If Orel Hershiser is available for the start of the season--which is becoming a probability--Valenzuela is probably the one pitcher they will move.
Rumors about his destination are already surfacing, beginning in San Diego with Joe McIlvaine, Padre general manager.
McIlvaine said Saturday that the Dodgers had offered Valenzuela to the Padres in a trade and added that he had refused.
“We just don’t have any interest in him,” McIlvaine said of Valenzuela. “He is on the downside of his career, not the upside.”
Claire angrily denied the report Sunday.
“I am just reacting to the quote without knowing whether it is accurate or not,” Claire said. “But if it is accurate . . . first, I have not discussed Fernando in a trade with San Diego. And I don’t appreciate another general manager or anyone else making comments about a Dodger in regards to an evaluation of his talent.
“If it was said, then Joe McIlvaine was out of order . . . out of line.”
McIlvaine responded, “OK, I won’t comment on it anymore. Somebody asked me a question and I answered it. It is probably my mistake.”
Sources offered confirmation that the Padres have not been part of Valenzuela trade discussions, mostly because the Dodgers do not want to trade him to a division rival.
But with the start of the season only three weeks away, the Dodgers have discussed with many teams trading Valenzuela, and that talk will increase.
Darryl Strawberry said he does not plan to play in an exhibition for about a week so he can rest his sore left hamstring. He said he will miss the Dodgers’ two games with Oakland in New Orleans next weekend and will probably take it easy until the start of the season. . . . Eddie Murray took a foul ball off his sprained right ankle in his last at-bat Saturday and missed Sunday’s game. . . . In Vero Beach Sunday, Ramon Martinez was hit for four runs on seven hits in four innings as the Dodgers lost to the Houston Astros, 9-5.
Times staff writer Bob Nightengale contributed to this story.
* MIKE DOWNEY: Fernando Valenzuela should be treated as a Los Angeles landmark and preserved. C3