Four decades have passed since a 20-year-old screwball-throwing left-hander from Etchohuaquila, Mexico, named Fernando Valenzuela captivated the baseball world when he began the 1981 season by winning his first eight starts for the Dodgers. Forty years later, Valenzuela’s otherworldly performance in that stretch — seven complete games, five shutouts, a 0.50 ERA in 72 innings — still inspires awe.
Valenzuela’s legacy stems not only from what did on the field, but the lasting impact he had off it. His improbable start captured the imaginations of baseball fans across the country. At some point during those first few weeks of the 1981 season, the excitement he generated acquired a name: Fernandomania. And it manifested in the form of packed stadiums, an outsized media presence wherever the Dodgers went, and the chants and cheers of Latino fans in Los Angeles and beyond, many of whom Valenzuela drew to baseball for the first time.
Former catcher Mike Scioscia, who spent his entire career with the Dodgers (1980-92), recalls an extra “energy” at Dodger Stadium on nights the southpaw pitched, while Astros manager Dusty Baker, who patrolled the outfield for Los Angeles from 1976-83, likened the atmosphere to playing winter ball in Mexico.
“Every Latin American country was represented when he pitched,” Baker recalls. “Not only Mexico, I’m talking El Salvador, Nicaragua. There’d be flags.”
Yet for the members of that 1981 Dodgers team, the lasting memory of the strike-shortened season isn’t the fanfare that Valenzuela generated, but his role in helping the team get to — and win — the World Series. Valenzuela’s youthful spark energized a veteran team that had played in three Fall Classics in the 1970s, but had not won a championship since 1965.
“The feeling was that this team was starting to run out of time to accomplish winning a world championship,” says first baseman Steve Garvey, who played for Los Angeles from 1969-82. “And it turned out that this young rookie became arguably the key piece.”
Valenzuela would go on to become the first — and to date, the only — pitcher to win the Rookie of the Year Award and the Cy Young Award in the same season. He showed up in the postseason, too. After posting a 1.71 ERA in four starts through the first two rounds of the playoffs, Valenzuela delivered a gutsy complete-game performance in the World Series against the Yankees in a must-win Game 3 with the Dodgers down 0-2. Los Angeles won that contest 5-4 and went on to take the Series in six games.
“It was helpful to be on a team that already had a few years in the Majors and especially here in Los Angeles,” says Valenzuela. “I think that helped me feel comfortable in that group. I won’t say protecting me, but helping me in areas where I lacked experience, with how to handle things on and off the field. That was a big help for me.”
For many, Valenzuela’s rookie performance came as a surprise. But his teammates quickly came to see him less as a phenom and more as a crucial part of their team.
“I was surprised because of his age,” says Baker. “But after a while, we ceased being surprised. We depended on Fernando.”
An incredible athlete
Baker, who picked up Spanish while playing in Mexico and has Mexican relatives, would often call Valenzuela “estrella” — the Spanish word for “star.” Valenzuela would smile and reply, “Tu estrella” — “You’re the star.”
“With all the notoriety and everything that he got, he still remained Fernando,” says Baker.
All these years later, Baker still marvels at Valenzuela’s athletic ability, which went beyond pitching and allowed the screwballer to win two Silver Slugger Awards and a Gold Glove. In that regard, the image that stands out in Baker’s mind is of Valenzuela in the Dodgers’ dugout, engrossed in a game of hacky sack.
“He could keep that thing going for 20 minutes without ever hitting the ground,” Baker recalls. “He’d go from one foot to the other foot, to the elbow, back to the feet. I thought that was one of the most amazing things that I’ve seen. I hear he’s an amazing golfer, and I’m not surprised at that at all.”
The experience of playing alongside Valenzuela has informed Baker’s approach throughout his managerial career, which began with the San Francisco Giants in 1993 and has spanned five teams and nearly three decades.
In 1980, the year Valenzuela made his Major league debut, the Dodgers and the Astros met in a one-game tiebreaker to determine the winner of the National League West. Although Valenzuela had pitched 15 2/3 scoreless innings in relief since being called up in September and was a candidate to start Game 163, manager Tommy Lasorda gave the ball to the veteran Dave Goltz instead. The Dodgers wound up losing the game 7-1, with Valenzuela pitching two scoreless innings out of the bullpen.
For better or worse, Lasorda’s decision to not start Valenzuela in that game haunted Baker. Thirteen years later, in his first year managing the Giants, Baker infamously tapped a rookie, Salomon Torres, in a must-win Game 162 against Los Angeles. That move also backfired as the Giants’ season ended with a 12-1 loss to the Dodgers, with San Francisco finishing second to Atlanta in the NL West. This was before the Wild Card, so the Giants missed the playoffs despite 103 wins. Almost 30 years later, Baker stands by his reasoning.
“People got [on] me about why I made the decision and why I went with Salomon,” Baker says. “It’s because we didn’t go with Fernando in [the 1980] playoff game. I still believe if I had to do it over again, that’s what I’d do.”
When Scioscia remembers Valenzuela’s signature pitch, the screwball, he remembers the sound it made as it whizzed towards home plate.
“When you can hear the spin of a ball, you know that there’s a high spin rate [and] that pitch is going to break a lot,” says Scioscia. “You could hear it occasionally on pitcher’s curveballs, sliders. With Fernando’s screwball, it was so tight, and you could hear it come in. That’s how he was able to make it look like a fastball that would just break out of his own last second.”
No catcher caught more of Valenzuela’s games in the Majors than Scioscia, who was behind the plate for 245 of the lefty’s 331 regular-season appearances with the Dodgers, including his 1990 no-hitter against the Cardinals.
“He had a very slow heartbeat, he could slow the game down and make a pitch,” says Scioscia. “And that’s what made him such a great finisher of games, because as the game got deeper, and hitters would bear down more, he was able to rise to that challenge and continue to make pitches, continue to compete.”
Like Baker, Scioscia knew some Spanish from playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, which came in handy when he first began working with Valenzuela. But even as Valenzuela picked up English, it became less and less necessary for the batterymates to communicate with words as they developed a deep understanding of each other.
“He would say, ‘Let’s throw this pitch.’ I would just go, ‘No, no, no,’ and he already knew what I wanted to throw,” Valenzuela says of Scioscia. “There was very good communication, very timely. In a game, that understanding is very important between the catcher and the pitcher.”
A practical joker
Despite his young age, on the mound Valenzuela was, to use Garvey’s word, “unflappable.”
“He may have been nervous on the inside, but exceptional players are able to mask that nervousness,” Garvey says. “It’s almost a confidence game. You’re trying to portray that at all times. He just had that at a young age. Was it fully developed? No. But was it good enough to get the job done as a rookie? Absolutely.”
Yet for all the poise he showed between the lines, Valenzuela’s youth showed, in the dugout and in the clubhouse. Teammates remember him as a practical joker with a great sense of humor that Garvey describes as “impish.”
Baker, for one, would sometimes feel a tap on his shoulder and turn around to find no one there. The culprit was invariably Valenzuela.
“Fernando was a kid,” says Baker. “And other than when he was on the mound, he acted like a kid. He used to crack us up.”
Valenzuela was known to keep a lasso in his locker. On many occasions, Scioscia found his ankle snagged in it as he walked across the Dodgers’ clubhouse.
“He was unbelievable with the lasso,” says Scioscia. “He could lasso anything.”
“For a young player, it normally takes a little time to get integrated in the clubhouse and have the confidence to do those things,” adds Garvey. “Even early on in his career, he had the confidence to do them, which I thought boded well for who he was. He was much more than his ability to perform on the field.”