There had been relief in his voice and few regrets in his words. It had been almost eerie to watch Fernando Valenzuela, a pitcher who weathered so many storms for the Dodgers, accept his release so gently Thursday.
But the shock to Valenzuela’s system apparently ran deep. Speaking with a clear head Friday morning, Valenzuela acknowledged that when he spoke with the media the day before, he had been drinking.
“It is not the right way, to drink when you have problems,” Valenzuela said. “But after I hear the news . . . I was very surprised. . . . So when I go to talk to reporters, I had to put in a few pieces of gum in my mouth.”
Shortly before flying home to Los Angeles on Friday, Valenzuela offered other thoughts about the move that has changed his life:
--He said the Dodgers initially told him this winter that they were not interested in re-signing him, then changed their minds several weeks later.
He said this “probably” meant the Dodgers only re-signed him so they could showcase him during their recent two-game exhibition series in Monterrey, Mexico.
“I think they already decided before this spring that I would not be on the team,” Valenzuela said. “They told me after last season that I was not in the Dodger plans, then later they said, ‘No, don’t take that in the wrong way, we are just trying to make some decisions.’
“Then in the end, they changed their mind and decided to sign me. I’m not sure why.”
Valenzuela’s appearance in Mexico two weeks ago included a splendid five-inning performance against the Milwaukee Brewers. It helped fill the 29,000 seats in Estadio Monterrey during each of two days while generating much good will and publicity for the organization.
Peter O’Malley, Dodger owner, vehemently denied that Valenzuela was only signed for the Mexican trip.
“That is just not true,” O’Malley said Friday. “That Mexican trip was not in cement until well after we had offered Fernando a contract. His signing had nothing to do with that.”
Officials of major league baseball said discussions concerning the trip began last August, although the deal was not announced until early this year.
O’Malley acknowledged that the Dodgers were considering not re-signing Valenzuela last fall. He said Valenzuela was brought to camp with a contract--an exercise that cost the Dodgers $630,494 in salary--because they wanted him to finish his Dodger career on the field.
"(Executive Vice President) Fred (Claire), (Manager) Tommy (Lasorda) and I talked about this back in the fall; we were considering doing something then, but we decided to give Fernando every possible chance,” O’Malley said. “I think the way it worked out was, by far, the most desirable way to do it. We gave Fernando a good-faith opportunity to win a job, and he did not.
“There is no doubt we did it the right way.”
Valenzuela said he has his doubts. He said he could not help worrying about his tenuous position while struggling during four spring starts with a 1-2 record and a 7.88 earned-run average.
“Sure, that is on my mind,” he said. “Everybody talks about it. You think about it.”
And he wasn’t the only one.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Valenzuela said, “but when I called my wife Linda and told her the Dodgers let me go, she said, ‘Finally.’ ”
--Valenzuela said he did not blame the Dodgers for using him so much throughout his career, a factor that critics said contributed to the early end of his effectiveness.
“I like to pitch. I don’t want to leave games,” Valenzuela said. “If you ever want to leave games, then they think they can always take you out. I don’t ever want to come out.”
Valenzuela averaged 243 innings during his nine full, injury-free seasons. Orel Hershiser averaged 241 innings during his six full major league seasons before suffering a major shoulder injury last season.
“It is not the Dodgers’ fault I pitch so much,” said Valenzuela, who never completely recovered from a shoulder injury in 1988. “I have to throw a lot of pitches to get through an inning. I always do. It has nothing to do with the Dodgers.”
Valenzuela said the public must realize that his career did not begin when he signed with the Dodgers in 1979 at 18.
“I have been pitching in full games since I was about 15,” Valenzuela said. “I started pitching when I was 13, but my brother would not let me go more than two innings. Then I would play in right field. I did not like that.”
Even though Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia and others say Valenzuela’s innings must be closely watched by his next team, Valenzuela does not agree.
“He is not the Fernando of five or six years ago,” Scioscia said. “He cannot throw 150 pitches, then come back in his next start and throw 150 pitches again. He needs to be monitored more than in the past.”
Said Valenzuela: “To have somebody come out and say you have to come in after five innings every game, I would not like that. I could not pitch like that.”
--Valenzuela said he does not need to keep pitching to support his family. He pulled out an investment check for several hundred thousand dollars as proof.
“I was supposed to sign this and send it back to Los Angeles, but I guess I can bring it there myself now,” he said. “Everything will be taken care of for me in the future. I make good investments.”
But he reiterated that his career is not finished. He said he would like to stay in the National League, but for the first time he did not rule out the American League.
“I know people in the National League. It is better for me that way . . . but maybe it would be good in the American League, where I don’t know anybody.”
In many ways, even before Thursday’s announcement, this was no longer Valenzuela’s team.
When he showed up last month for the start of training camp, he looked around the clubhouse and said: “I don’t know any of these people.”
With most of his friends either retired or traded, he befriended several minor leaguers. And so he spent his last night in Vero Beach Thursday playing pool with some of the Dodgers’ younger players.
He said he missed several televised tributes, but thought it was better that way.
“I heard several comments like I was dead,” he said, smiling. “I am not dead. My career is not finished. My career, it’s just beginning.”
Dodger public relations officials in both Los Angeles and Vero Beach reported that public response to the Fernando Valenzuela decision was light. However, they received several negative phone calls, including one from an alleged member of a Los Angeles-based Latino organization who said members of his community would stop buying tickets to games. . . . Representatives of a Spanish-language television station slept in their cars outside Valenzuela’s room at Dodgertown Thursday night before being granted an interview Friday morning.
Mickey Hatcher, who was released by the Dodgers last Sunday, has cleared waivers and is free to negotiate with any team. His agent, Willie Sanchez, reportedly will begin soliciting offers Monday. . . . Dave Walsh also has cleared waivers and has been sent outright to triple-A Albuquerque. “I am happy to still be a Dodger,” said Walsh, the left-handed reliever who was waived to make room on the roster for catcher Gary Carter. “I know everybody around here. I can still improve. Who knows what will happen?”
Jeff Hamilton returned to the Dodger lineup for the first time in six days and singled, doubled and tripled, with a run batted in, to help the Dodgers beat the Tigers, 15-5, on a windy day in Lakeland, Fla. Hamilton, who has a sore hand, must remain in the lineup for the rest of spring or risk losing his opening-day starting job to either Lenny Harris or Mike Sharperson.
Eric Karros, who will start the season as Albuquerque’s first baseman, had four hits, including a homer, and five RBIs. . . . Dodger relievers Tim Crews, John Candelaria and Jim Gott combined to pitch four scoreless innings after starter Bob Ojeda allowed four runs in five innings. . . . Outfielder Darryl Strawberry stayed in Vero Beach so that his right hamstring would not tighten on the two-hour bus ride.