Fan’s collection is a key component of ‘Fernando Nation’ documentary
Where were you during “Fernandomania,” about 30 years ago? As a 14-year-old, Paul Haddad taped the radio broadcasts and edited them together, turning Vin Scully’s calls of that 1981 season into personal keepsakes. It was, for the L.A. boy, a meeting of two masters: the pitching prodigy from a dusty Steinbeckian village in Mexico and the Bronx-born broadcaster at peak form ... baseball’s velvet fog.
And the ultimate L.A. marriage.
“The best part is, at any given moment, I get to relive Scully in some of his finest moments,” Haddad, now a freelance documentary producer, says of his collection of tapes. “And I have just gotten my baseball-crazy 4-year-old son into these recordings too. He walks around the house mimicking Scully: ‘Hiiiiiiiigh drive into deeeeep left field ... home run, Garvey.’
“I just thought he [Scully] was at the top of his game in 1981. I enjoyed hearing Scully say it as much as I enjoyed what was happening on the field.”
In May, Haddad’s Dodgers obsession became ESPN’s gift. Thanks to a tip from a friend, Haddad’s recollections — and audio collection — would be part of “Fernando Nation,” a retrospective on Fernando Valenzuela that debuts Tuesday, filmmaker Cruz Angeles’ contribution to the network’s fine “30 for 30” collection.
In what would be a dream for any fan, Haddad appears on camera during the documentary-style study of Fernandomania.
Die-hard Dodgers fans such as Haddad will note that the filmmaker carefully framed his pitch. For instance, the director skips Valenzuela’s 1980 debut, instead starting with the pitcher’s opening-day performance in 1981, then recapping that amazing start: 8-0 with five shutouts and a 0.50 earned-run average.
In a phone interview, Angeles still seems upset at the good stuff he had to leave out — tidbits that the director loved but ultimately dubbed extraneous to the narrative he wanted to tell: Chavez Ravine’s turnaround from shameful historical site to a place of Latino pride.
For example, Angeles had to drop recollections of how Valenzuela came to throw his lights-out screwball, courtesy of scout Mike Brito and former pitcher Bobby Castillo. Valenzuela, struggling in the minors with a mediocre fastball, reportedly picked up the new pitch in a week.
“Who threw a screwball besides Carl Hubbell decades ago, or Bugs Bunny?” Haddad asks on camera.
But what Angeles did include is bound to give any down-in-the-dumps Dodgers fan a spirits-lifting sentimental journey.
Viva Fernando! In the midst of a sour economy, here was a city coming alive with pride over a 19-year-old phenom who glanced up at God during his windup, then delivered some of the most devilish stuff hitters had ever seen. More than just a pitch, it was a hangman’s noose.
“He was a nobody from nowhere,” marvels one of the unidentified voiceovers.
“You were used to guys like Don Drysdale, 6-5 and ripped, who looked like they just came out of a Mr. Universe contest,” recalls another fan, Stan Brooks. “Here was a guy who looked like he’d just gotten done with a beer-drinking competition.”
Among the areas “Fernando Nation” explores:
•How Walter O’Malley was determined to discover “the Mexican Koufax.”
•How Brito stumbled across Valenzuela while scouting another player, then twisted Al Campanis’ wallet behind his back to sign him.
•How the New York Yankees nearly stole Valenzuela away at the last minute.
Angeles, who grew up in Los Angeles, says he originally dubbed the film “The Bull and the Sleeping Giant,” the “sleeping giant” referring to the Latino community at that time, which he says was viewed as largely apathetic and uninvolved. Valenzuela helped to turn that around.
At times, the 50-minute piece flirts with becoming too political. It deals too long, perhaps, with the ugly ouster of Mexican Americans from the site where Dodger Stadium would be built. But it deftly ties together that historical moment with the pride and sense of euphoria that Fernandomania brought back to that same battleground.
What’s especially striking about the piece is how humble Valenzuela is about the phenomenon now, nearly 30 years later.
“Fernandomania surprised me a lot,” Valenzuela says, “because the Dodgers in those years with so many great players with long careers ... to be so focused on one player was strange to me.”
Those quiet moments, his easy, unaffected demeanor, make it easy to see why the soft-spoken left-hander is still so revered today.
“It is incredible, it is fantastic, it is Fernando Valenzuela,” croons Scully at one point in one of the many clips blending the accomplishments of Valenzuela, the magic of Scully and the memories of Dodger Nation.
Meanwhile, Haddad — keeper of the treasure trove of tapes — will see the documentary for the first time Thursday night, during an invitation-only premiere at the stadium.
“I was always like a weird kid anyway,” he says in explaining his boyhood obsession with his favorite ballclub.
Weren’t we all.
“Fernando Nation” premieres Tuesday at 5 p.m. on ESPN, with repeat telecasts throughout the fall and winter.