An Off-Strip Sure Bet
He’s a solitary figure, and that’s just the way he likes it, sitting alone in the uppermost row of seats behind first base at Earl E. Wilson Stadium.
His view is unobstructed, the teasing lights of the Strip glimmering in the distance while his pride and joy takes his place on the field, until the waves of autograph seekers begin to crash his solitude between innings.
“Are you Fernando’s dad?” a youngster asks.
Fernando Valenzuela, father of both Fernandomania -- the cultural phenomenon that whipped Dodger Stadium into a Cinco de Mayo frenzy every fifth day in 1981 -- and the smooth-fielding, sweet-swinging Nevada Las Vegas junior first baseman of the same name, purses his lips. He breaks into a sly grin before nodding yes.
“Well then,” the youngster says, “can you sign my ball?”
“But I’m not playing anymore,” Valenzuela says with a mischievous twinkle in his eye before pointing down below to his son, a left-handed dead ringer for his father, from his soft cherubic face to his somewhat portly build. “You need to get his autograph.”
Without hesitation, the kid fires back, “I already got it last night.”
That a one-time Dodger demigod who used to look up to the heavens on every pitch is now known to a new generation of baseball fans as someone’s doting dad who looks down from his seat does not rankle Valenzuela. Rather, he revels in it with immense pride.
“Being from Mexico I didn’t have the chance to go to school and now my son has that opportunity,” the father said. “One day I was kidding him and I said, ‘When I was 20, I was one year in the big leagues already. Where are you? I’ll tell you -- you’re in school and that’s real good. You’re going straight. You’re getting your education and playing the game.’ It’s fun to watch him.”
And it’s downright glorious for the eldest of Valenzuela’s four children -- two sons and two daughters -- especially with the season he and Las Vegas have had in his first year after transferring from Glendale College.
In winning Las Vegas’ regular-season triple crown with a .356 batting average, 13 home runs and 68 runs batted in, Valenzuela helped the No. 18-ranked Rebels (42-15 overall, 24-6 in the Mountain West Conference) win their first league title after a 30-30 record last year. He also was selected the Mountain West player of the year, the first Rebel player to win the award since Matt Williams in 1986.
And after this week’s Mountain West tournament -- Las Vegas defeated Air Force, 10-1, Wednesday -- the Rebels should play in the NCAA tournament for only the second time since 1989.
“This is what it’s about,” said the son, who spurned recruitment advances of traditional powers USC and Cal State Fullerton to help build a new legacy at Las Vegas, a program that has had some success churning out major leaguers such as Williams, Cecil Fielder and Todd Stottlemyre.
“They used that pitch of rebuilding and hopefully going to Omaha [for the College World Series],” he said. “That’s what they sold me on.”
Valenzuela sold Las Vegas by also leading it in four other offensive categories -- total bases (130), slugging percentage (.625), walks (37) and on-base percentage (.472).
Plus, he has been perfect in the field, with no errors in 437 chances.
His parents want him to stay for his senior year, but a favorable pick in the June draft may be too much to pass up.
“Of course I want to finish school and get my degree but I think with time that will happen,” he said. “Right now my dream is to play major league baseball; go to the minors, get a chance to prove myself like I’ve done at every level -- college, junior college, high school and hopefully at the minor league level next year.”
Dick Williams, the longtime major league manager who now serves as a Rebel radio broadcaster, likens the 5-foot-10, 220-pound Valenzuela’s game to that of Texas Ranger first baseman Rafael Palmeiro.
“Yeah, but when I look at him, I see his daddy,” Williams said. “I call him a big man because he’s built like his daddy. But he has good actions, good moves and he’s quick. Great hands. Of course his bat leaves nothing to be desired ... he’s got the good genes. To me he’s good enough to be considered a major league prospect.”
The question always arises, though, about why he didn’t follow his father’s famous footsteps to the mound.
Valenzuela was a six-time All-Star who used his screwball to baffle batters, winning the Cy Young and rookie-of-the-year awards while leading the Dodgers to the 1981 World Series title. He pitched a no-hitter in 1990, but the Dodgers unceremoniously dumped him late in spring training a year later, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of many fans. By the time his career ended in 1997, he had won 173 games.
“I chose a different path,” said the son, who often visited major league clubhouses as a child but did not grow up in them as other famous baseball-playing juniors such as Ken Griffey did. “I pitched in Little League and high school, but we all have our own destinies and mine was to be a hitter.”
The father was anything but disappointed.
“I said, ‘That’s a great decision.’ Not because he’s bad, but he’s not a pitcher,” he said. “I didn’t push him when he was young. I wanted it to be his own decision. I didn’t want him to get burned out by the time he was 14 or 15. If I was going to do that, tell him, ‘You’re a pitcher,’ he wouldn’t be playing now.”
And Las Vegas wouldn’t be reaping the benefits.
Rebel Coach Jim Schlossnagle said that the father -- who, with wife Linda, made the nearly five-hour drive from the family’s home in Los Feliz to catch every home series but one this season -- is a coach’s dream.
“He just stays back,” said Schlossnagle, who had former Dodger Jerry Reuss’ son, Jason, on his roster last year and, as an assistant at Tulane, coached Bruce Sutter’s son, Chad. “He’s a great dad because I never hear from him. He just supports his son and just wants to be a dad.
“It adds something to your program when you have someone with name recognition, but he’s got to be a good player. If he was a bad player or if he was a trumpet player we wouldn’t know who he was.”
The son, who was born four days before the San Francisco Giants’ Joe Morgan ended the Dodgers’ 1982 season with a home run against Terry Forster in the season finale, a game started by Valenzuela, is still learning just how huge a hero his father was.
After Valenzuela signed with the Rebels, the program got a sponsorship from the local Telemundo affiliate. And Spanish is now spoken at breakneck speed in the stands because when word began to spread that el hijo del Toro -- the son of the Bull -- was playing for the Rebels, Las Vegas Latinos began showing up in droves to root for what they consider Mexican royalty.
“Fernando, lo mismo. Es Facil. Lo mismo,” he is implored in an at-bat after he singled. “Just like last time, it’s easy. Just like last time.”
“Day by day I understand more,” the son said. “A lot of them come out, shake my hand, thank me for what my dad’s done and have me take pictures with their kids. Some people might think it’s a burden, but I think it’s kind of cool.
“I take it as a compliment. My dad’s done good things for L.A., the Hispanic community, Mexicans, and that’s a good thing. I’m proud of what my dad’s done and I appreciate it more every day.”
Almost as much as the father appreciates watching the son play the game while getting an education.