Fernandez is ready to make fresh start

April 17, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Texas -- He was all of 19 years old, a Hawaiian kid of Portuguese descent trying to find his way in the profession that later would earn him millions.

The Dodgers promoted him from Class-A Vero Beach to Triple-A Albuquerque. He toted his bags and a hot-prospect label into an atmosphere that teetered on hostile.

Triple-A ballplayers convinced they are being kept out of the majors against all logic don't always take too kindly to young prospects on the fast track.

Fernandez fit that profile back in 1982.

One career minor-leaguer made him feel right at home. His name was Kevin Kennedy, then a backup catcher for the Albuquerque Dukes, now the manager of the Texas Rangers.

"Not too many guys were happy I was there," Fernandez said. "A lot of them were looking at it like here's this 19-year-old punk kid coming in here. Kevin wasn't like that. He was the first guy to be really nice to me.

"He actually helped me out a lot more even off the field than on it. I was just a kid. I didn't know where to go, what to do. He showed me around."

Twelve years later, Fernandez starts over again. He makes his first American League start tonight in front of mass of Texans at The Ballpark in Arlington and an ESPN audience.

This time, Kennedy will be helping the Rangers' hitters try to figure out how to pick up the ball out of his hand as Fernandez completes one of baseball's funkiest deliveries.

Kennedy had hoped Fernandez would be making his AL debut for the Rangers, not against them.

The Orioles out-bid the Rangers for Fernandez's services, offering $9 million for three years, compared to the $8 million Texas offered.

"Sure we had some concerns about his injury history, but we still wanted him," Kennedy said. "We felt he was one of the better free-agent pitchers out there."

Fernandez, coming off shoulder bursitis that delayed his Orioles debut, wouldn't mind duplicating the performance he put forth in his Triple-A debut. He struck out 13 that night against the Phoenix Giants.

The Orioles will settle for five innings from Fernandez, who pitched three innings in his first minor-league rehabilitation start, four innings in his second. After the latter, he said his arm felt as good as it has in the past five years.

"I do feel really good," Fernandez said. "I hope saying that doesn't backfire on me, but I do feel good. I wouldn't have had any trouble pitching six innings the other night."

Unlike when he arrived in Albuquerque 12 years ago, Fernandez's teammates are more than happy to have him join them. Relieved, eager, curious.

Fernandez will try to give the Orioles a victory in a game started by someone other than co-aces Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald.

Fernandez, who has allowed the fewest base runners per nine innings (10.26) among active pitchers, has been equally tough on right-handed hitters (.203) and lefties (.209), thanks in part to a fastball that runs away from right-handed hitters.

"What made him so tough for me was his very deceptive motion," reserve Orioles outfielder Lonnie Smith said. "You really never saw the ball until after he released it. He hid it so much it kind of exploded on you. Some guys say he's not overpowering, but he's really nasty and he's sneaky fast."

As a prospect in the Dodgers' system, Fernandez was noted for being both sneaky and overpowering.

Neither Kennedy nor Fernandez had any trouble remembering the left-hander's 13-strikeout Triple-A debut.

"I was real wild then," Fernandez said. "I was walking a bunch of guys and Del Crandall had seen enough and took me out in the sixth inning."

Wildness was not why the Dodgers traded Fernandez in December of 1983 for fellow Hawaiian Carlos Diaz, the lefty reliever acquired to replace drug-troubled Steve Howe.

"It had nothing to do with how I was pitching," Fernandez said. "They were mad at me because they sent me to the Dominican for winter ball and I only stayed two weeks. I was young and I was homesick."

Soon after, Fernandez was on his way to New York, where he spent parts of 10 seasons with the Mets. Five times he reached double figures in victories, with a high of 16 in 1986. Eight times he made injury rehabilitations starts, battling knee problems, a wrist fracture and occasional arm soreness.

Fernandez credits Mel Stottlemyre, his pitching coach with the Mets, for taming his control.

"He taught me how to relax, how to settle down, concentrate and throw strikes," Fernandez said.

Most of the Rangers hitters will be facing Fernandez for the first time tonight. Only Will Clark (10-for-31, two home runs) and Chris James (10-for-36, 3), Gary Redus (10-for-44, 4) and Junior Ortiz (3-for-21) have faced him.

"I'll be relying on [catcher Chris] Hoiles to get me through the first few times," Fernandez said.

"I've never faced them, but obviously I've seen Jose Canseco and Juan Gonzalez a lot. I know they have a good offensive ballclub. I'm not stupid."

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