Collier: Fernando was baseball at its best

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Twenty-five years ago this very afternoon, a freakish fly-shagging calf injury to starting pitcher Jerry Reuss forced an obscure Mexican left-hander onto the mound at Dodger Stadium for Opening Day.

Built like a top and barely 20 years old, he strode to the very spot that Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale built into baseball's Mount Olympus a generation before, and as more than 50,000 people sat transfixed through a sun-splashed Southern California afternoon, Fernando Valenzuela shut out the Houston Astros, 2-0, on five hits.

In the quarter century since, baseball rarely has delivered the kind of uplifting story line that would explode across this continent over the next 51/2 weeks. On this silver anniversary of Fernandomania, that sounds vaguely like an indictment, even if it isn't meant that way.

The exorcising of Boston's post-season demons in 2004 and Cal Ripken's eclipse of Gehrig's durability record in 1995 notwithstanding, few of baseball's great moments since April 9, 1981, have cast the game in a hallowed light. Roger Maris' iconic 61-homer season was overshadowed six different times by three different suspects, but, obviously, hold your tickets on that.

Game of Shadows indeed.

But, in April and through half of May in 1981, a humble Dodgers rookie who spoke not a word of English flashed across the game's national stage like few phenomena before or since. In his second start, at San Francisco, he threw another complete game, a four-hitter, and struck out 10. In his third, at San Diego, he spun his second shutout and punched out 10 again.

Because he spoke no English, catcher Mike Scioscia couldn't strategize with him on the approach to specific hitters. Scioscia just went to Valenzuela's strength, which was largely a smorgasbord of breaking pitches, most especially two different species of screwball.

At Houston on April 22, he pitched his third shutout in four starts, beating Don Sutton, 1-0, striking out 11, and driving in the only run. When it was time for him to start again at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, and soon enough the baseball world, was a different place. Generally a laid back hurry-sundown setting, two-thirds filled with celebrities and celebrity watchers trying to beat each other onto the freeways by the seventh inning, Chavez Ravine became the destination point of Los Angeles' burgeoning Mexican community, a raucous, passion-filled amphitheater of international intrigue.

In that twilight cauldron on April 27, he shut out the Giants, stroked three singles, drove in a run and pumped his record to 5-0. He'd pitched five complete games in April (last year's National League season leader pitched seven), and his earned run average was 0.20.

But he was so much more than the staggering proportions of his statistical profile. His cherubic innocence channeled everything that was good about the game, and his windup, an earnest 100-degree twist punctuated with a last-second glance to the heavens just before his delivery, suggested the intercession of a higher power.

It was too Hollywood for Hollywood, thankfully, but it should not be overlooked that the esteemed Spanish broadcaster Jaime Jarrin, who served as Valenzuela's translator for captivated writers coast-to-coast, now has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Valenzuela won his sixth consecutive start May 3 at Montreal, then shut out the Mets at New York five days later, striking out 11. In only his third appearance at Dodger Stadium, he beat Montreal again, 3-2. He was 8-0 with five shutouts and seven complete games. His ERA was 0.50.

In the lobby of the Los Angeles' Wilshire Hyatt Hotel Sunday evening May 17, superscout Hugh Alexander, in his distinctive Oklahoma drawl, rhapsodized on Fernando's screwball over drinks with writers covering the Phillies.

"Ah seen that keeed," Hugh said, "He'll turn his back to ya and then flip that little screwgy in there, and, oh boy, he's somethin'."

The next night, Fernando went to the Dodger Stadium mound a certifiable hero. He got a standing o. as he walked up the hill, then went calmly after win No. 9. With two outs in the Phillies' first, Mike Schmidt rode a slider over the right-field fence. Three innings later, the Phillies scratched out three runs when a couple of singles and a sac fly followed a couple of walks, and Marty Bystrom and Ron Reed held on to shut out the Dodgers, 4-0.

Fernandomania was over, but Valenzuela became the first pitcher to be Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young winner in the same season. With his team down two-games-to-none in the World Series, he pitched a complete-game victory in Game 3 against the New York Yankees, who didn't win again.

"What can I say about him?" Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda said that night. "He's a champion."

Valenzuela was selected to six consecutive All-Star teams and, in 1986, pitched 20 complete games. Only three pitchers have had even 15 since.

The Dodgers were planning no specific anniversary celebration of Fernandomania, unless you count his bobblehead night June 23. Fernando will watch from his seat next to Jarrin in the Dodgers' Spanish broadcast booth.

I hope he knows that the next Fernando can't get here soon enough.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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