There are things you only see once in a lifetime and, instinctively, you know it right away. That's what it was like for one magical month in 1981, when Fernando Valenzuela -- this roly-poly kid from the place no one could pronounce -- held the whole baseball world in his left hand.
His grip on Southern California would last a decade, finally loosening on Thursday when the Los Angeles Dodgers waived him for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release.
I was there at the beginning and, coincidentally enough, I was there at the end. I was covering the Dodgers when an injury forced Jerry Reuss to turn his 1981 Opening Day start against the Houston Astros over to a funny-looking, 20-year-old rookie from Etchohuaquila (don't even try), Mexico. I also was there Wednesday, when the Baltimore Orioles hit him so hard that he woke up on the waiver list.
For 10 years, Valenzuela romanced a city that long had been hungry for a Hispanic sports hero of such magnitude, but his appeal was not limited to the barrios of East L.A. Fernandomania was a cross-cultural phenomenon, especially during that one month in 1981 when everyone -- from the box seats to the bleachers and beyond -- felt the magic.
Valenzuela defeated the Astros, 2-0, on Opening Day and went on to win eight straight games, five by shutout. He also delivered a couple of game-winning hits along the way. Dodger Stadium swelled to standing room every time he took the mound. The evenings were electric, and if that sounds like a cliche, then you weren't within 50 miles of the place on any of them.
But my favorite Fernando story happened the night his amazing winning streak finally came to an end, in a 4-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies at Veterans Stadium. Phillies manager Dallas Green delighted afterward in telling how his club had scouted Valenzuela and found a weakness -- lay off the screwball and it will break out of the strike zone.
Sure enough, the Phillies had Fernando wired that night. They got three hits off him in seven innings.
That was the year of baseball's two-month midseason strike, so who knows what kind of year Valenzuela would have had if he had pitched a full season? He went 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA and eight shutouts. He won the Cy Young Award and Rookie of the Year. The Dodgers won the World Series.
He went on to average 17 victories a year until his arm started to go in 1987. His record from 1987-90 was 42-48, and he had not been pitching well this spring. The Orioles scored eight runs off him in 3 1/3 innings Wednesday, and the deadline for saving a couple of million dollars on his contract arrived Thursday. The Dodgers had five more effective starters and one of the biggest payrolls in baseball. From a business standpoint, it wasn't that tough a decision.
From a public-relations standpoint, however, it will not sit well in Los Angeles, especially if Valenzuela finds a way to recapture his lost glory in San Diego or New York or wherever. Stranger things have happened, like that day in 1981 when . . .
Orioles first baseman Glenn Davis isn't ready to count Valenzuela out, even if it is obvious that he is not the same pitcher he was five years ago.
"He doesn't have the velocity he used to have," said Davis, after facing Valenzuela Wednesday, "and he didn't have his control. If he doesn't have his control, he's going to get beat around.
"He doesn't overpower anybody like he used to. The last year or two, he lost a foot or two off his fastball. But he's a smart pitcher. He knows how to pitch. I wouldn't count him out. I've seen other springs when he got hit hard. He's a competitor. He'll find a way to beat you."
If Valenzuela is not claimed on waivers by Tuesday's deadline, there figure to be a lot of teams interested in signing him as a free agent. Unlike Bo Jackson, who scared teams away with his woeful medical outlook, Valenzuela has proven he's healthy enough to perform. He won 13 games last year, as many as the vTC winningest pitcher on the Orioles' staff (Dave Johnson).
Still, it seems unlikely that anyone will place a waiver claim and assume his giant salary, even if he is one of the few players in
baseball with proven drawing power.
Figure this out. The Texas Rangers released outfielder Pete Incaviglia and brought veteran designated hitter Brian Downing into camp, which proves only that the Orioles aren't the only team in baseball with one eye on the scoreboard and the other on the bottom line.
Downing, largely unpursued as a free agent, will play for cheap. Incaviglia stood to make some serious money. The Rangers are on a cost-cutting binge. But at least there is some sentimental value. Downing has been reunited with former teammate Nolan Ryan 12 years after the two of them helped lead the California Angels to their first division title.