The release of pitcher Fernando Valenzuela by the Dodgers during spring training in late March was a blow to many of his fans in Los Angeles, particularly those in the Latino community.
After a decade of seeing the Mexican left-hander on the pitching mound, the unthinkable prospect of a baseball summer without Valenzuela at Chavez Ravine--or worse, in another team’s uniform--was almost more than some could bear.
But once the initial shock wore off, those who admired Valenzuela, knew him personally or were touched by his off-the-field involvement in a variety of causes, reflected on how much he had meant to baseball in Los Angeles and to the game in general.
Jaime Jarrin, one of the Dodgers’ Spanish-language broadcasters, called most of Valenzuela’s Dodgers games over the radio, including the magnificent five shutouts in his first eight major-league victories during the emotionally charged early days of Fernandomania in 1981. He saw Fernando’s popularity grow with every outing.
“You could come to the park on nights he would pitch and there would be hundreds of people waiting outside, selling T-shirts and postcards with his picture on them. It was unbelievable,” Jarrin said.
Rene Cardenas, Jarrin’s broadcasting partner, said: “Fernando Valenzuela represents one of the most extraordinary chapters in the history of the major leagues. He became the hero we all had awaited. He was a ballplayer from a different mold.”
Vin Scully, the Hall of Fame broadcaster who has been a fixture behind the microphone for the Dodgers since their days in Brooklyn, was equally amazed by the arrival of the then-pudgy 20-year-old from Sonora.
“Fernando, being Mexican, coming from nowhere, it was as though Mexicans grabbed onto him with both hands to ride to the moon,” he said.
The hopes and dreams of many did soar on the example set by the poised young man with the biting screwball. His presence meant much more to Latinos in this town than fun-filled sojourns at the ballpark.
“The first thing that comes to mind is that he was an inspiration to kids in the barrio,” said Ernie Rodriguez, who has coached the Roosevelt High School baseball team for 18 of his 24 years at the school. “It gave them a chance to dream. . . . I saw more and more fathers taking their kids out to the playgrounds, and I know it had to do with Fernando being in the big leagues.”
Steve Marden, the baseball coach at San Fernando High School, also saw some of the benefits of the Valenzuela craze. His highly successful teams traditionally include numerous Latinos, some of whom were influenced by Fernando.
“I think it definitely had an impact on a lot of young kids, particularly left-handed pitchers,” Marden said. “Some kids saw the success he was having and they thought they had the right to dream that dream also.”
And a marvelous dream it was. From the humbleness of a dirt-floor shack in his native Etchohuaquila, Sonora, to National League Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards, to 141 victories in 257 career decisions and multimillion-dollar contracts, Valenzuela showed that dreams can come true.
But the fairy-book tale swerved off course when the Dodgers cut loose Valenzuela and his $2.55-million salary. Opposing players had hit him hard in spring games, and the Dodgers said he had not regained the top form he showed before a shoulder injury.
The sudden release brought anger from some of Fernando’s most devoted fans and protests from Mexican-American activists, who urged a boycott of Dodger games.
But, although the Dodger era is over for Fernando, it is hardly the final chapter for Valenzuela, who at age 30 believes he still has a lot of pitching to do in the major leagues.
“I heard several comments like I was dead,” Valenzuela said shortly after his release. “I am not dead. My career is not finished. My career, it’s just beginning.”