Fernando Valenzuela has fond memories of his brief stint with the Angels 30 years ago
Almost 50,000 fans filled Anaheim Stadium. Reporters and photographers prowled the field, positioning themselves for the grand entrance of the night’s returning hero.
In 60 years of Angels baseball, few moments have been so heavily anticipated, so fervently awaited.
He may have been past his prime. A star in decline. A former Dodger of all things.
But Fernando Valenzuela was still Fernando Valenzuela. And on June 7, 1991, he received one of the most raucous welcomes the Angels had ever seen.
“It was really strange being with another team, for the first time in my career,” Valenzuela said in a recent interview. “There was a lot of expectation for what I was going to do.”
‘Fernandomania @ 40’ is a multi-episode documentary series that examines star pitcher Fernando Valenzuela’s impact on the Dodgers, Major League Baseball and the Latino community in Los Angeles 40 years ago.
Thirty years later, Valenzuela’s tenure with the Angels is nothing more than a footnote in franchise history. After his celebrated arrival, he made only two starts with the team. His time in the rotation lasted less than a week.
With an 0-2 record, a 12.15 ERA and an unforeseen heart condition, he was placed on the disabled list and ultimately released before re-signing with the team and spending the remainder of the campaign in the minor leagues.
Of his 17 major league seasons, it was perhaps his most unceremonious.
And yet, recalling that year with a soft chuckle, the Southland legend still speaks fondly of the memory — reminiscing on a transitional period in his career that gained importance with time.
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“It was a good experience,” he said, “to be with another team.”
The Valenzuela who joined the Halos was not the same pitcher he had been the decade prior with the Dodgers.
He was 10 years removed from his legendary “Fernandomania” season of 1981, when he won Cy Young and rookie of the year honors to help guide the Dodgers to a World Series title. He hadn’t made an All-Star team since 1986. After suffering a shoulder injury in 1988, he had bounced back slightly in 1989 before posting a career-worst 4.59 ERA in 1990.
At 30 years old, Valenzuela went to spring training with the Dodgers in 1991 but was cut at the end of camp — an emotional decision cemented by more struggles in the exhibition season.
“Fernando has been a very valuable and integral part of Dodger history,” Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley said at the time. But, O’Malley also noted, “all careers must end.”
Valenzuela had other plans.
The left-hander went back to Los Angeles to train on his own while awaiting another opportunity. Part of his routine included pitching sessions in a city park, his friends serving as his catcher. But as opening day came and went, he was still without a team.
“I just tried to keep myself in shape,” Valenzuela said. “I didn’t think it was my time to stop playing. So I kept working out, to see if anybody would be interested.”
The Angels, meanwhile, had a roller coaster start to the season. They won five of their first six, but then lost nine of their next 13, leading to the firing of longtime general manager Mike Port at the end of April.
In May, they got hot again, climbing up the American League West standings behind a starting rotation anchored by Mark Langston, Jim Abbott, Chuck Finley and Kirk McCaskill.
Their fifth starting spot remained a weakness.
On May 20, the club decided to take a chance and see if Valenzuela could be the answer, signing him to a one-year contract worth $1 million plus incentives.
“I know he’s a winning pitcher,” said Dan O’Brien, the Angels’ senior vice president for baseball operations. “Historically he’s been very successful. There’s no reason he can’t be here.”
Not everyone was so certain.
Immediately, Valenzuela’s signing was viewed as more of a public relations stunt than a strategic baseball move. The team’s attendance had been lagging all season. Their reputation for signing past aging stars preceded themselves. And when Valenzuela’s addition was announced, club executives were forced to fend off doubts.
“If his name was Fernando O’Brien, we still would have gone after him,” then-Angels president Richard Brown said during Valenzuela’s introductory news conference. “The fact that he’s popular and we have a substantial Hispanic community that identify with Fernando is a very pleasant byproduct. It’s wonderful, but it’s certainly not the only reason we signed him.”
Still, it didn’t take long for a frenzy to ensue.
As part of his contract, Valenzuela agreed to make three minor-league starts for the club to evaluate before bringing him back to the majors. In his first outing at high-A Palm Springs, so many people showed up at the 4,800-seat stadium that hundreds of fans were allowed to sit on the field, only a yellow rope separating them from the action.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” said Angels manager Joe Maddon, who was in attendance that night as the club’s minor league hitting instructor.
The anticipation only built the next couple weeks as the Angels kept winning — they went 12-4 between late May and early June, trailing only the Oakland Athletics in the American League West standings — and Valenzuela’s big league return inched closer following two more starts with double-A Midland.
On June 4, the Angels officially announced Valenzuela would be called up to pitch three days later. The game was nearly sold out by the next afternoon, with more than 20,000 tickets bought in one day.
When he took the mound in Anaheim for the first time, still pitching with his trademark windup, his eyes rolling up to the sky at the top of his delivery, there were nostalgic shades of Fernandomania all over again.
But then, Valenzuela got knocked around the park, giving up five runs in five-plus innings to the Detroit Tigers.
His next start went even worse, surrendering five more runs in less than two innings to the Milwaukee Brewers in a midweek matinee five days later.
“This was a terrible game,” Valenzuela said afterward. “I think I can do better than what I was doing today.”
Though Valenzuela’s fastball velocity had dropped to the low 80-mph range and his screwball lacked its usual lively movement, the Angels initially intended to give Valenzuela another chance to prove it.
But the next day, a treadmill stress test revealed an irregularity in the blood flow in Valenzuela’s heart, landing him on the disabled list. He wouldn’t play another game in an Angels uniform.
While Valenzuela was medically cleared to return to action, the Angels, Valenzuela and his representatives couldn’t agree on a plan to get him reacclimated.
The Angels wanted Valenzuela to spend at least 30 days in the minor leagues rebuilding stamina, then re-evaluate if he was ready to be recalled. Valenzuela thought he only needed a 20-day rehab assignment, according to reports at the time.
In the end, the sides couldn’t find a compromise. On July 5, Valenzuela was released by the Angels — who by that point had begun a midseason slide that sent them spiraling toward a last-place 81-81 finish — with an invitation to rejoin the club on a minor-league contract.
Valenzuela accepted the minor-league assignment a week later and split the rest of the season with affiliates in Midland and triple-A Edmonton before leaving the organization for good in September by mutual consent.
It would be two more years before Valenzuela appeared in the major leagues again.
Valenzuela spent the 1992 season in the Mexican league, then broke into the Baltimore Orioles rotation in 1993. After bouncing between Mexico and the majors in ‘94 and ‘95, he had a renaissance 1996 campaign with the San Diego Padres — he went 13-8 with a 3.62 ERA in 31 starts — before retiring in 1997.
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While he never recaptured the glory of his Dodgers days, those final five seasons are some of Valenzuela’s proudest. He added 120 outings, 32 wins and 310 strikeouts to his career totals. He was part of a Padres team that won the NL West in 1996. And looking back, he identifies his brief Angels tenure as the starting point for an unexpected second act.
“It was like, ‘I still believe in myself. I can still pitch and throw good games,’ ” he said. “That’s the reason I kept going, and I pitched seven more years in my career. That’s not easy, to spend 17 years in the big leagues.”
Without the one year he spent with the Angels, it might not have played the same way. He didn’t succeed in Anaheim, failing to sustain the excitement that accompanied his debut. But he proved to himself, at least, he could still compete. That his career wasn’t over. That he indeed had more to give.
“I wanted to keep pitching, no matter what team. I wanted to keep going,” he said of his move from the Dodgers to the Angels. “Staying in the same city, playing for the teams back to back, that was a great experience for me.”
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