Today thirty-nine years ago, a 20-year old Mexican rookie made a spot start for the Los Angeles Dodgers on Opening Day. The kid would pitch a complete game shutout, limiting the Houston Astros to five hits, as he walked two and struck out five. This would be the start of what was called Fernandomania.
The kid we are talking about here is Fernando Valenzuela of course. He was called up in September 1980 pitching 17 2/3 scoreless innings in relief over the course of ten games, during which he earned two wins and a save.
The next year, Valenzuela would get a spot start on Opening Day as scheduled starter Jerry Reuss had injured himself twenty-four hours before his start and Burt Hooton was not ready to fill in. Valenzuela was penciled as no. three starter but since Hooton was not able to make a spot start, manager Tommy Lasorda turned to him.
Also in his second start, Valenzuela pitched a complete game, allowing a run on four hits and two walks to the San Francisco Giants as he struck out ten of the Dodgers’ bitter rivals.
Fernando would win his first eight starts before handing over his first loss vs the against the Philadelphia Phillies. He would compile eight wins, seven complete games, five shutouts and four earned runs surrendered in his first seventy-two innings. He would be a major force for the Dodgers and helped them to win the World Series in that strike-shortened 1981 season. He recorded thirteen wins and seven losses with an ERA of 2.48. In the World Series vs the New York Yankees, he pitched another complete game and earned the win despite allowing four runs on nine hits. This win brought the Dodgers back in the Series as they were trailing 2-0 and they would move on to win the next three games to win it all.
He would remain a force to be reckoned with during his time with the Dodgers. In 1986, he managed to win twenty-one games. But as he pitched ineffectively during the 1991 Spring Training, he was released by the Dodgers. From then he led a nomadic existence in Major League Baseball as he played for several clubs.
Eventually, he retired after the 1997 season.
That one spot start on April 9, 1981, was the start of a craze that surrounded the Mexican Rookie: Fernandomania. With his performance, he became the biggest story in baseball in the first half of the 1981 season. As a media icon, he drew large crowds from the Los Angeles Latino community. His performance triggered high demand across the country for his rookie 1981 Topps and Fleer baseball cards.
He would become the first player to win the Rookie of the Year Award AND the Cy Young Award in the same year. With the receipt of the Cy Young Award in November 1981, Fernando was asked if he knew who Cy Young was. His answer: “I do not know who he was, but a trophy carries his name so he must be someone very special to baseball.”
Yours Truly was lucky enough to see him pitch in a game at Dodger Stadium on September 22nd, 1995. He was pitching for the Dodgers’ opponent, the San Diego Padres. But real baseball fans do not forget their idols. Even though he was pitching for the opponent, Valenzuela got a standing ovation from the Dodgers fans, something that gave me goosebumps.