Fernando Valenzuela entered the press room at Dodgertown Thursday to talk with reporters about his release by the Dodgers. With him was the Dodgers’ Spanish broadcaster, Jaime Jarrin, who had acted as Valenzuela’s interpreter during the years of Fernandomania, before Valenzuela learned English.
A reporter asked a question, and Valenzuela looked over at Jarrin, who translated the question into Spanish. But when Valenzuela began to reply in Spanish, the bewildered reporter asked him what was going on.
“This is how it began, and this is how it will end,” Valenzuela said with a sad smile.
Then he answered the question in English.
No one remembers who coined the word Fernandomania , but the odds are that it was announcer Vin Scully. There was a mystique about this pudgy kid from Echohuaquila, a small village in the state of Sonora, Mexico.
“He had long hair, he looked old, he did everything right--it all added to the mystery,” Scully said.
But no one word could truly describe the frenzy that the 20-year-old left-hander created in 1981, when he captured the hearts and loyalty of Angelenos with his humility, aplomb and a brilliant screwball.
“I’ve said this before, and I say it in measured tones, but the 1981 season and Fernandomania bordered on a religious experience,” Scully said. “Fernando being Mexican, coming from nowhere, it was as though Mexicans grabbed onto him with both hands to ride to the moon.
“I would see parents who would bring their children to the ballpark, not only to show them how good Fernando was, but as if to say, ‘See, if you work hard, even if you are poor, you can succeed.’ There was a fervor about his being and the reaction of the crowd was like nothing I have ever seen before. I’ve seen great pitchers and cities who love players. But I have never seen anything like this, and I don’t think I will ever see it again. “
Valenzuela sparked interest in people who knew little about baseball but wanted to be a part of the excitement.
“One day after Fernando had pitched the night before, a lady called and asked if he was going to pitch again that night,” said Joan Muraska, who worked in the Dodger ticket office. “I told her that starting pitchers don’t usually pitch two nights in a row. She said, ‘Why not? I thought the Dodgers would want to show him off.’ I guess she thought we would put a ring through his nose and lead him out to the mound every night.”
So popular was Valenzuela that first season that nearly every game he pitched would sell out, not only in Los Angeles, but in other cities as well. The media clamored for interviews, and the Dodger switchboard was constantly jammed with phone calls, including many from Mexico, from fans wanting to know when he would pitch, or if the game would be televised.
“The country was ready for an idol,” Jarrin said. “When Fernando pitched, it wasn’t a sporting event, it was a social event. All of a sudden, people wanted to learn Spanish and learn about Mexico. It was a wonderful way to bring two countries together.”
Los Angeles’ Latino community embraced Valenzuela, who could not speak English. His appeal, however, was universal.
“He was the first Dodger Hispanic player I ever dealt with that people--all fans--were infatuated with,” said Steve Brener, then the Dodgers’ director of publicity, who worked for the organization for 18 years.
Only two years earlier, Valenzuela was pitching in the Mexican League when he was spotted by Corito Varona, a Latin American scout. Varona called the Dodgers, who sent team scout Mike Brito to Mexico for a second look.
Brito signed the 18-year-old Valenzuela, and he was sent to Lodi of the California League for the last part of the 1979 season. During Valenzuela’s first years with the Dodgers, he lived with Brito.
“Fernando lived in my house, I took him to the ballpark because he didn’t drive and my wife washed his clothes,” Brito said. “He was just a kid who didn’t understand what was going on. He never said anything. He got his satisfaction from the inside.”
Los Angeles fans got their first look at Valenzuela in the final month of the 1980 season after the Dodgers promoted him from their double-A farm team in San Antonio. In his major league debut, on Sept. 15 at Atlanta, Valenzuela did not allow an earned run in 2 1/3 innings of relief. The Dodgers were in a division title race with the Houston Astros, and he went on to make nine more relief appearances, ending the season with a 2-0 record and a 0.00 earned-run average in 17 2/3 innings.
But it was on a cold Friday night at Dodger Stadium that Valenzuela’s name began to ring in the ears of Dodger fans. It was the final weekend of the 1980 season, and the Dodgers needed to win their last three home games against the Astros to tie for the division title. In the first game, with the score tied, 2-2, in the ninth inning, Valenzuela struck out three batters in two innings. He won the game, 3-2, to keep the Dodgers’ hopes alive.
“I think that it was after that performance when the Dodgers realized what they had, how special Fernando was,” Scully said. “He was so poised and efficient out there. The Dodgers had hoped for a Mexican ballplayer. And here was a jewel.”
The Dodgers swept the series but lost the title to Houston in a playoff game.
“Fans got a small taste of Fernando the last month of the 1980 season, but it was opening day of the next season when Fernandomania began,” Brener said. Jerry Reuss was supposed to pitch on opening day, but he was injured the day before. “So,” Brener said, “here Tommy (Lasorda) taps Fernando to start, which we don’t announce until the last minute, and this kid from Echohuaquila, who doesn’t speak English, shuts out the Houston Astros (on five hits, 2-0) on opening day. That started his string of eight consecutive wins and the shutouts and the whole nine yards, and that’s when it all began.”
Brener said this was one public relations success that wasn’t planned. “In baseball publicity, you usually go with the hot hand,” he said. “Fernando joined the rotation, thrilled the fans with a shutout and we just kept the snowball going until we had an avalanche.”
Toby Zwikel, who covered the Dodgers for the South Bay Daily Breeze in 1980 and joined the team’s public relations staff in ’81, said he remembers Valenzuela’s first trip to New York. “Here we were driving along--I think we were crossing the Brooklyn Bridge--and off to the side you could see the Statue of Liberty,” Zwikel said. “So I pointed it out to Fernando, and he just nodded his head in acknowledgment. I thought that if I had been his age and it was my first trip to New York and I had just come from a small village in Mexico, my mouth would have dropped open. But not Fernando. He had an incredible amount of poise and took everything in stride. He was mature beyond his years.”
Valenzuela never let up. In 1981, he became the first to win rookie of the year and the Cy Young Award in the same season. He finished the strike-shortened season with a 13-7 record and a 2.48 ERA and led the league with eight shutouts, 11 complete games, 180 strikeouts and 192 1/3 innings pitched. The Dodgers even won the World Series.
Fernandomania continued strong through the 1983 season, then began to mellow out, giving way to strong, loyal fan support.
“I don’t think Fernandomania ever stopped, but after the 1986 and ’87 seasons, he wasn’t as dominating,” Brener said. “Still, his following was always there.”
Times staff writer Bill Plaschke contributed to this story.
VALENZUELA’S CAREER HIGHLIGHTS 1980--Promoted to Dodgers from San Antonio on Sept. 10 and did not give up an earned run in 17 2/3 innings, all in relief.
1981--Pitched a five-hit shutout over Houston on opening day. Became the first player to be selected rookie of the year and Cy Young Award winner in the same season.
1982--Finished third in Cy Young balloting.
1984--Had a career-high 15 strikeouts May 23 at Philadelphia.
1985--Set a major league record by not allowing an earned run at the start of the season for 41 1/3 innings.
1986--Became the 26th Dodger to win 20 or more games in a season and the second to win a Gold Glove Award. Tied Carl Hubbell’s All-Star game record with five consecutive strikeouts.
1987--Won his 100th game at 26 years 5 months, the second youngest Dodger to do so. Don Drysdale won his 100th game at 26 years 1 month.
1988--Placed on the disabled list for the first time in his career July 31 because of a shoulder problem.
1989--Lost his first five decisions, but in August and early September was 5-1 with a 2.47 earned-run average.
1990--On June 29 against St. Louis at Dodger Stadium, pitched his first major league no-hitter, the same day that the Oakland Athletics’ Dave Stewart pitched a no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays.