Fernando saga gets new start on happy ending

MIKE LITTWIN

May 22, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

Fernando Valenzuela is back in baseball, and this has to be good.

He wasn't gone long -- just a few months, just long enough for us to understand how much we missed him. I know I did.

I missed him from the minute the Los Angeles Dodgers unaccountably, and certainly unromantically, cut him at the end of spring training. They're the same Dodgers, of course, who once, long ago, deserted Brooklyn. Whatever the franchise's assets, you wouldn't want to count soul among them.

Finally, the California Angels have picked up Fernando and sent him to the minors to scrape off the rust. Soon, he'll be back in the major leagues, and, though it's a stretch to say that all will then be right with the world, all will be right with a small part of it anyway.

If it's 50 years since Joe D. and Ted Williams had their now much-chronicled (too-much-chronicled?) season of wonder, it is 10 years since Fernandomania took hold of the baseball world. There have been many great players, but none quite like Fernando.

He was more than a pitcher and more than a phenomenon and more than a point of pride for Mexican-Americans eager to find a hero of their own.

He was magic.

He was mystery.

It was fitting, somehow, that in his windup Fernando's eyes would search the sky as if to suggest his strength and his majesty were otherworldly. So much was strange about him. There was the body, the pitcher as Reubens might envision him. And, remember, he threw that wonderfully idiosyncratic, unhittable, unobtainable screwball. He was, if any baseball player ever was, if any person ever was, unique. But not only that. He intrigued us in ways that we could only dimly understand.

Mostly, it was the Roy Hobbs in him. He landed unannounced in the middle of our world -- ageless, rootless and inexplicable. He was the only player I've ever heard of where the team furnished his birth certificate. To authenticate his age. And to prove he was real.

Since he spoke no English, he remained a Garbo-like mystery, even as we probed around the edges. In his rookie season, in the time of Fernandomania, there was the pilgrimage of gringo reporters, which I joined, to his home in Etchohauquila, in Sonora, Mexico.

It was a small village, featuring dirt roads and houses with dirt floors and a baseball diamond with a dirt field. Fernando shared RTC his house with his parents and with 11 brothers and sisters. There was no running water. The year before he came to Los Angeles, they put in electricity, which amounted to a single, precious, fragile wire attaching each house to the comforts of the modern world. In Fernando's, there was one light bulb. And, by the time Fernando made it to L.A., there was a TV.

Television camera crews landed nearby in helicopters, to the amazement of the village, where children still chased after each visitor's car for the adventure of it. A wonderful story developed. When Fernando made it big and was making millions, he wanted to build his family a nice house. In fact, he built them a mansion, right on the same spot where their little hut had been, on the same spit of land his parents could never consider leaving.

The story grew, and the legend with it. He won his first eight games and the Cy Young Award as a rookie and led his team to the world championship. Teammate Reggie Smith said he was touched by God. But, eventually, inevitably, he grew mortal. Not since 1986 has Fernando had a winning record. And this year, after the Orioles crushed him in a spring training game, Fernando was sent into exile.

The news was troubling. Wasn't Fernando always to be a Dodger? But then we were reminded that the Dodgers sold Duke Snider, and they even traded Jackie Robinson, who quit rather than face the indignity of it. So nothing is forever. Besides, Fernando is 30 now, in his 11th season, and a grown-up. He speaks English. He's another guy out there trying to make the incredible living available to major-league athletes.

Where did it go wrong? All the innings and all the screwballs undoubtedly took their toll on his arm. The baseball people say there's no snap left in the screwball, and his fastball, though never overpowering, is even less so now. Those are baseball explanations, however. Maybe it's simply that he lost the magic.

The Angels, who feature Dave Parker and Dave Winfield in their lineup, are obviously a team rooted in nostalgia, making them the perfect match for Fernando. They offer him the chance for a happy ending, or at least a happier one. It's certainly an opportunity for us to see him again and re-imagine the glory.

Fernando was all about the power of imagination anyway. The way they tell us baseball is supposed to be -- and almost never is.

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