Arlington, Texas -- The day he arrived at Twin Lakes Park, Fernando Valenzuela might have been the only one who truly believed that this day would come. He was just another washed-up pitcher with a dream, the supply of which far exceeds the demand in the big-bucks world of big-league baseball.
That afternoon in Sarasota, Fla., he threw a few tentative pitches from the practice mound, rolling his eyes skyward with each delivery as he did in his glory days. No one will admit it now, but there were a lot of other people rolling their eyes that day, too.
Valenzuela will elicit a different response tonight -- perhaps a standing ovation -- when he takes the mound at Arlington Stadium to face the Texas Rangers in his first major-league start since 1991. His comeback might not be complete, but he has come back to show there is still some life in that famous left arm that had been left for dead.
"I always thought I'd be back," Valenzuela said at a bilingual news conference at Arlington Stadium yesterday. "When? I didn't know. Where? I couldn't answer that either. But I knew if my arm was in shape that I could pitch at this level."
The Orioles need him to succeed, which is another indication of how far he has come in the six weeks since he accepted the club's non-roster invitation to spring training. There was some question whether the team needed him at all when general manager Roland Hemond announced his impending arrival on Feb. 27.
"I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch," manager Johnny Oates said. "This is great. It's important for us to do well. This is not a circus we're running here. The guy pitched well [in spring training], and I expect him to keep pitching well."
Valenzuela did not give up a run in the first 14 innings he pitched in Florida this spring. He was knocked around by the Toronto Blue Jays in his final start of the exhibition season, but his place in the rotation already was assured by then. It was just a matter of keeping him sharp until the time came when the Orioles needed a fifth starter.
"He earned what he has gotten," Oates said. "He came to our camp, and he pitched well. I expect him to start 25-30 games for us. If we're going to be competitive, he's going to have to pitch well, but there are going to be nights when he struggles just like everyone else."
Tonight was supposed to be his Orioles debut, but Oates slipped him into Friday night's game against Seattle for one inning of work. The move was made out of necessity. The Orioles came up short of pitching when Ben McDonald lasted only 1 1/3 innings in his first start. Still, there was room to wonder if Oates took advantage of an opportunity to reduce the level of anticipation and relieve some of the pressure on Valenzuela.
It didn't make much difference. The Stadium Club was crowded with reporters from the United States and Mexico for yesterday's news conference, which was taped and transmitted to several countries in Latin America. The scene was reminiscent of Fernandomania, when Valenzuela had to hold a news conference at every National League stop.
"It does bring back memories," he said. "It makes me think back to 1981. It's nice."
If you think that his comeback is improbable, you should have seen his arrival. Valenzuela became the Los Angeles Dodgers' Opening Day starter by default in 1981, when veteran Jerry Reuss was forced out of action temporarily with a strained
hamstring. He became a local hero when he pitched a five-hit shutout that day and became an international star when he went on to win his first eight starts.
Frank Robinson remembered. He was managing the San Francisco Giants in 1981, and he recalled how the 20-year-old left-hander seemed to transcend his tender years. It was that recollection that was the driving force behind the Orioles' decision to give Valenzuela a tryout this spring.
"I just remembered what the guy was like when he was healthy," Robinson said yesterday. "I knew it wasn't the real Fernando that saw in Vero Beach in 1991. I looked at his numbers in the Mexican League, and I figured if he's anywhere near where he was, he was worth a look.
"I guess it was a long shot, but I don't go to the track very often, so I don't know that much about odds."
Robinson isn't much for making comparisons either, but he said yesterday that the Valenzuela of 1993 looks more like the guy who dazzled the National League in 1981 than the one who couldn't stay in the major leagues 10 years later.
"He resembles more the guy in the '80s," Robinson said. "The velocity is almost there, and the screwball is OK. The location, the savvy, the way he sets up hitters. That's 1981."
General manager Roland Hemond also consulted senior scout Fred Uhlman Sr., who had watched Valenzuela pitch six innings in the Caribbean Series in early February. Uhlman agreed with Robinson that the club had nothing to lose by bringing Valenzuela to camp. The deal was struck with agent Dick Moss in a matter of days.