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Flashback to 1981: Fernandomania!

Flashback to 1981: Fernandomania!

Flashback to 1981: Fernandomania!

The atmosphere was, as they say, electric. 49,478 fans packed the ballpark – many arriving three hours before the first pitch – wondering if their new favorite son would give another performance to be remembered.

 

The atmosphere was, as they say, electric. 49,478 fans packed the ballpark, many arriving three hours before the first pitch, wondering if their new favorite son would give another performance to be remembered.

And the object of their affection and adulation? “He’s getting up for the game, all right,“ said a teammate. “He’s in there on the trainer’s table, sound asleep.“

The word “phenom” gets thrown around quite a bit in baseball; heck, the White Sox once used the p-word to describe Jason Bere. But no young pitcher, not Sandy Koufax, not Roger Clemens or Greg Maddux, not Nolan Ryan or Tom Seaver, not even Mark Fidrych in ‘76, Dwight Gooden in ‘84, or Dontrelle Willis in 2003, in the last half-century has set the baseball world on fire quite like the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela did in 1981.

The physical antithesis of the tall, lean flamethrower, the 20-year-old rookie with the generous paunch and baffling screwball entered that April 27 contest against San Francisco having won his first four starts of the season, going the full nine in each, tossing three shutouts and allowing but one run in 36 innings. He would be facing a solid Giants club; the Dodgers’ hated rivals from the north would finish the year a game over .500 with a batting order built around sluggers Jack Clark and Darrell Evans. Valenzuela kept them off balance however, throwing another complete game and striking out seven in LA’s 5-0 win. It was his third shutout in succession, fourth in five starts, and extended his string of consecutive scoreless innings to 28 1/3. Showered with ovations throughout the evening, Fernando also added three hits and knocked in the game’s first run.

Valenzuela had given a glimpse of his promise the year before. After dominating the Texas League for San Antonio in 1980, the young lefty was given a cup of coffee with Los Angeles. In ten relief appearances he allowed just eight hits in 17 2/3 scoreless innings, firmly establishing himself as a top prospect. No one had been prepared for this run of success, though, and the accolades poured in. “Webster has no words to define him,“ said second baseman Davey Lopes. “He’s amazing, unbelievable,“ testified his manager, Tommy Lasorda. “Now I know how Walter Alston felt when he had Koufax.“ “He can put the ball where he wants it better than anybody I’ve every seen,“ chimed in catcher Mike Scioscia.

Baseball scouts lead a hit-and-miss kind of career. Baseball lore is filled with stories such as the time a Phillies’ scout passed on a chance to see an Oklahoma teen named Mickey Mantle after he was told that the kid had leg troubles. There are other cases when a scout stops by to check out one player only to become bedazzled by another. The Dodgers had stumbled onto Fernando in a similar manner. Dodgers’ scout Mike Brito was in Mexico on a summer’s day in 1978 to check out a shortstop. Valenzuela was pitching for the other team. The following year, Fernando was a Dodger farm hand. Two years later, after only five major-league starts, he had become a Dodger icon.

Start number six would come on May 3 in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. With a young Tim Raines joining power-hitting catcher Gary Carter and multi-talented center fielder Andre Dawson, the Expos’ offense boasted an enviable combination of power and speed, ranking second in the league in home runs and first in steals. They were no match for Valenzuela, though. The rookie, who still spoke very little English, fired a five-hitter before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the tenth. His shutout streak came to an end, but Valenzuela still got his sixth straight W in the 6-1 victory and ended the night with an ERA of 0.33, having allowed only two runs in fifty-four innings.

The Big Apple was the next stop on the Fernandomania tour, and just under forty thousand New Yorkers filled Shea Stadium. Those secretly rooting for baseball’s newest sensation did not leave disappointed as Fernando fanned eleven and beat the Mets 1-0. In his fifth shutout he also showed remarkable poise and a knack for making the big pitch at the right time, stranding seven New York base runners in the first three frames and ten for the ballgame. He lowered his season ERA to 0.29 and his career ERA in the majors was now just 0.22 in 80 2/3 innings. Now history was beckoning: the seventh straight win to open a season left Valenzuela just one shy of the rookie record, set in 1945 by Boo Ferriss of the Boston Red Sox.

His chance to enter the record books would come back in Dodger Stadium against the same Montreal club he had beaten just eleven days earlier. Again Valenzuela went the distance, and this time it might have been one inning too many. Up 2-1 with two out in the ninth, Fernando was touched for a game-tying home run by Dawson. Destiny, though, was not to be denied; Pedro Guerrero led off the last of the ninth with a homer off Steve Ratzer, sending the crowd of 53,906 into a frenzy and Valenzuela into MLB’s history books with an 8-0 record (and a 0.50 ERA).

Valenzuela’s parents, Avelino and Hernenegilda, would be among the 52,439 in attendance in Chavez Ravine for their son’s shot at being the first pitcher in major-league history to start his rookie season 9-0. In town were the defending World Champion Philadelphia Phillies. With his club starting the day one game behind St. Louis in the NL East race, Phils’ manager Dallas Green gave the ball to Marty Bystrom, who the year before had elicited some phenom talk of his own by winning all five of his decisions in his first taste of big-league action.. Valenzuela had trouble getting the big out for the first time in his young career, getting touched for four runs through seven. Mike Schmidt’s first-inning solo homer was all Bystrom would need, as he held Los Angeles to five hits and no runs through his seven innings in the Phillies’ 4-0 victory.

While the Philadelphia loss did not mark the end of Fernandomania as a phenomenon, he would help draw big crowds for the rest of the year (the Dodgers lapped the field in attendance in 1981, averaging over 40k a game when few other clubs could draw as many as 30), but it did mark the end of Valenzuela’s peak as a major-league pitcher. He would still become the first man to win the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards in the same season, but he would never be quite as effective or as exciting again. Beginning with the May 14 loss to Philadelphia, Fernando would go 5-7 with a 3.66 ERA (the NL norm was 3.49) the rest of the way. He rebounded to have a big October to lead the Dodgers to Tommy Lasorda’s first World Championship (going 3-1 with a 2.21 ERA in the postseason) and would be a solid, if unspectacular pitcher for most of the next five years, with his last big year coming in 1986 (21-11, 3.14 ERA, career-high 242 Ks). Although he was ostensibly just 25 after that ‘86 season (rumors had been floating that he was really six or seven years older than his listed age), he would go 72-85 from 1987 on and would never again appear in the World Series.

But those first eight starts were something else.

By The Baseball Page
Tuesday, 15 Mar 2011

 

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Comments

  • jamela said: A very nice recall of that great day which marked as one of the most exciting event in the history of football. - Feed the Children 4:04AM 03/05/14
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