Fernando Valenzuela is one of the most memorable pitchers of the 1980's if not the modern era. With his body type suggesting that he was anything but a professional athlete, debuting when he was only 19, winning a Cy Young Award & Rookie of the Year award when he was 20, a delivery where he rolled his eyes back into his skull during the middle of his wind up, and a haircut that just can not be politely described.
Making his major league debut at the age 19 after being signed out Mexico at the age of 18 did not leave him much time to spend in the minor leagues (in fact he sstarted almost as many games in the minor leagues in rehab starts in his 30's). After 3 starts in 1979 with Lodi Dodgers (now the Rancho Cuamonga Quakes) in the Class A California League, Fernando was was promoted to the Double A San Antonio Dodgers (now San Antonio Missions) of the Texas League.
For someone that was 12 months away from a Cy Young worthy season, his transition to San Antonio was rough. Very rough. He could speak no English and there were only two-other Spanish speakers on his team and the Dodgers did not think to have them room together to help the young prospect adjust. This language barrior lead to isolation and Fernando had grown up in an extremely isolated Mexican village where there was not even running water, indoor restrooms, or paved roads in the area. This created problems when he initially refused to endorse to cash his paycheck because he did not understand what the document was and spent days in his sweltering apartment because he did not know he could report it to the building supervisor to get repaired.
Luckily he had teammates like Orel Hershiser and Alex Taveras to help him out and after a rocky 5 - 6 start the team found him one day out front of the stadium with his bags packed ready to return back to his hometown in Mexico. The team talked him through his homesickness and even made the effort to fly his girlfriend to San Antonio so they could spend some time together in the Alamo City. After her visit Fernando finished the season with a 9 - 3 record and even recording 6 wins with 0 losses for the month August, perfecting his devastating screwball in the process.
This caught the attention of Dodger's manager Tommy Lasorda and on September 10 the big league team called up the teenager to use in relief while they were in a tight race with the Houston Astros for the National League West playoff spot. During the rest of the season, Fernando pitched 17 2/3 innings in relief and gave up 0 earned runs and struck out 16 while only walking 5 batters. The Dodgers lost a one game playoff with the Astros and failed to reach the playoffs that season but in 1981 they had a legendary year whose highlights including winning the World Series with a pitching staff lead by a shy 20 year old with a haircut as unorthodox as his wind-up that found a way to shut down opposing teams and batters.
The Texan in me would like to think that our state and it's pride, bravery, and compassion was partly responsible for this success. But then again, maybe it wasn't that at all and that screwball played the bigger role.
- by Eric Robinson