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Valenzuela, Fernando (1960—)

Valenzuela, Fernando (1960—)

Few baseball players have captured the popular imagination as Fernando Valenzuela did in the summer of 1981, when the word "Fernandomania" came into the English lexicon, as the young lefthander with the incredible screwball astounded the baseball world by tossing five shutouts during an eight game winning streak to start the season. In a career that lasted from 1980 to 1996, Valenzuela was known almost as much for his burly physique and unorthodox windup as for his effectiveness and durability.

Fernando Valenzuela was born in Etchohaquila, in the Mexican state of Sonora, about 350 miles south of the Arizona border. The youngest of twelve children, by the age of sixteen Fernando was earning $80 a month as a pitcher in the Mexican leagues. Beating out the Yankees by half a step, the Los Angeles Dodgers bought the lefthander's contract from Puebla for $120,000 in 1979. The following year, Valenzuela made his debut with the Dodgers, pitching eighteen scoreless innings during the season's final weeks.

In 1981, twenty-year-old rookie Fernando Valenzuela exploded on the baseball scene. Fernandomania began in Los Angeles soon after the screwball-throwing lefthander started the season with a shutout, and it spread across the North American continent as Valenzuela managed to notch seven more victories (including four more shutouts) before registering his first loss. Although the league caught up with him in the second half of a strike-torn season, Valenzuela nevertheless finished the year as baseball's strikeout king, while also boasting the league's second-highest win total (13) and an impressive 2.48 ERA. In his first full season in the major leagues, the boy from Mexico had led his team to a World Series championship, while being recognized as both the National League's Rookie of the Year and its Cy Young Award winner.

Valenzuela's face appeared on the covers of numerous sports magazines in the summer of 1981, while he charmed the sports world with his modesty, his eyes-to-the-sky windup, and his virtual ignorance of English. His age also kept people guessing, as many observers supposed that he was significantly older than his twenty years. Although Valenzuela went on to have a successful career with the Dodgers, Fernandomania faded by season's end; afterwards he was just a very good pitcher. But good enough to win 19 games in 1982 and register a league leading 21 victories in 1986. Along the way he received baseball's first million-dollar salary arbitration award in 1983.

Valenzuela pitched for the Dodgers for eleven seasons, during which he won 141 games while losing 116. One of his most appealing features was his durability, as he led the league in complete games in three seasons and twice in innings pitched. During the 1980s he was also one of the league's most consistent strikeout pitchers, finishing among the top five for seven years in a row. During the late 1980s, his career began to be hobbled by shoulder soreness—an ailment no doubt caused by a decade of subjecting his arm to the strain of throwing his famed screwball. In addition to being a star hurler during his years with the Dodgers, Valenzuela was also recognized for his excellent defense and a dangerous bat.

His years with the Dodgers were capped by a no-hitter on June 26, 1990, but his career was thrown into doubt after the Dodgers released him the following spring. For the next seven years Valenzuela bounced from team to team, including a stint in the Mexican leagues in 1992. Although his comebacks always seemed to draw a fair amount of attention, they were rarely successful (a 13-8 record in San Diego in 1996 being the only exception), as Valenzuela managed to compile a meager record of only 32 wins and 35 losses during his post-Dodger career.

With 173 career victories, Valenzuela retired as the leading Mexican-born pitcher in Major League history. Despite his considerable achievements with the Dodgers, he is nevertheless best remembered for setting the baseball world on its ear during the spring and summer of 1981.

—Kevin O'Connor

Further Reading:

Littwin, Mike. Fernando! New York, Bantam, 1981.

McNeil, William F. Dodger Chronicles. Pittsfield, Massachusetts, W.F. McNeil, 1993.

——. The Dodgers Encyclopedia. Champaign, Illinois, Sports Publishing, 1997.

Sahadi, Lou. The L.A. Dodgers: The World Champions of Baseball. New York, Quill, 1982.

Thorn, Jim, and Pete Palmer, ed. Total Baseball. New York, Warner, 1989.

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