In 1981, a chubby, 20-year-old left-hander from Mexico who threw a screwball and looked upward into the heavens when he pitched became the biggest sensation in all of baseball. There was no "Baseball Tonight" or MLB Network back then, no Internet to catch your video highlights. ESPN was in its infancy.
But Fernando Valenzuela became the story of the season. The Los Angeles Dodgers rookie won his first eight starts, all of them outings of nine innings, with his eighth win coming on May 14 in Los Angeles, a ho-hum 3-2 win over the Expos that raised his ERA all the way up to 0.50. Grantland's Ben Lindbergh just studied which pitchers -- dating back to 1955 -- were the biggest home attendance draws. Valenzuela's 1981 season ranked second on the list. It was called Fernandomania.
Game 1: April 9 at Dodger Stadium -- Dodgers 2, Astros 0
Fernando drew the Opening Day start -- his first in the majors -- because Jerry Reuss had pulled a calf muscle. He pitched a five-hit shutout, striking out five and walking two. The Dodgers had signed him in July 1979, purchasing him from Yucatan of the Mexican League for $110,000. The story goes that scout Mike Brito had gone to Mexico to scout a shortstop and happened upon the 18-year-old Valenzuela. He wired general manager Al Campanis in Los Angeles: "Just saw the Mexican Sandy Koufax." Campanis supposedly wired back, "Unless Mexican Sandy Koufax can play shortstop, not interested." Campanis would say Valenzuela had been on the team’s radar since he was 17. Either way, the Dodgers got him and he reached the majors in 1980, pitching 10 games in relief.
Game 2: April 14 at San Francisco -- Dodgers 7, Giants 1
Valenzuela allowed four hits while striking out 10. The youngest of 12 children, Valenzuela was from Etchohuaquila, about 370 miles south of the Arizona border. In 1981, he didn't speak English and the screwball was actually a fairly new pitch for him; he had learned it from teammate Bobby Castillo after Valenzuela signed with the Dodgers. "It's a difficult pitch because you have to get the right rotation," he said in early May. "But after a few months, I felt very comfortable with it." He also said that he liked cowboy movies and that his favorite actor was John Wayne.
Game 3: April 18 at San Diego -- Dodgers 2, Padres 0
Valenzuela again fanned 10, allowing five hits with no walks. He even went 2-for-4 at the plate.
Game 4: April 22 at Houston -- Dodgers 1, Astros 0
Fernando outdueled Don Sutton, striking out 11 and scattering 11 hits. Better yet, he went 2-for-3 and knocked in the only run.
Game 5: April 27 at Dodger Stadium -- Dodgers 5, Giants 0
Back home, Dodgers fans couldn't wait to see their young star. From the AP story: "It was a World Series atmosphere that gripped Dodger Stadium. Fans were arriving as early as three hours before the game to witness the latest performance of the remarkable Fernando Valenzuela." Valenzuela made the wait worthwhile: He tossed a seven-hit shutout with seven strikeouts -- and went 3-for-4 at the plate.
Game 6: May 3 at Montreal -- Dodgers 6, Expos 1
This wasn't technically a complete game, even though Valenzuela went nine innings. His scoreless streak ended when he allowed a run in the eighth and the game went extra innings. But the Dodgers scored five runs in the top of the 10th -- Reggie Smith knocked in the first run when he pinch-hit for Valenzuela -- giving Fernando his sixth win in a row. Before the game, he was taking pictures of his teammates. After the game, he downed four slices of meatloaf before addressing the media.
Game 7: May 8 at New York -- Dodgers 1, Mets 0
In advance of his start at Shea Stadium, the Dodgers sent Valenzuela to New York for a news conference, even though the team was still in Los Angeles. His agent, Tony De Marco, accompanied him and was already talking about a bigger contract in the future. Brito -- you know him as the guy who for years sat behind home plate at Dodger Stadium wearing a white hat -- also traveled with Fernando as a "brother and bodyguard," as De Marco termed it. "He has a good contract for a rookie," De Marco said. "But if he continues, we expect next year to get every dollar he deserves. If he's worth a million dollars, they'll pay him. We'll see how high the sky is."
Valenzuela didn't disappoint. Anticipating a bigger-than-normal crowd, the Mets even built two new ticket booths. Before more than 39,000 at Shea Stadium on a Friday night -- they had drawn 5,653 the night before and it was one of just three games all season the Mets drew more 30,000 -- Valenzuela beat Mike Scott, striking out 11 while surviving seven hits and five walks as he escaped bases-loaded jams in the first and second innings.
From the New York Times game story:
Long lines formed outside the stadium early in the evening. T-shirts proclaimed "Fernando forever." Radio broadcasts were beamed to 17 stations in Mexico instead of the three that usually carry Dodger games. The biggest crowd of the season at Shea and the biggest press corps surrounded Valenzuela when he went to work, only three years after his debut as a teen-ager in the Mexican League. ...
"New York?" Valenzuela reflected, answering the inevitable question after his clamorous appearance. "I always heard it was, what do you say, out of this world."
Game 8: May 14 at Dodger Stadium -- Dodgers 3, Expos 2
Before nearly 54,000 fans at Dodger Stadium, Valenzuela allowed just three hits, although two of them were home runs. His record through eight starts: 8-0, 72 IP, 43 H, 4 R, 17 BB, 68 SO. It was something.
He finally lost his next start, 4-0 to the Phillies, and then had a couple of rough outings in which he allowed seven runs each time and got knocked out in the fourth inning. Then came the strike that wiped out two months of summer baseball. But Fernando tossed three more shutouts after the strike and finished 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA and 11 complete games and eight shutouts in 25 starts. He led the NL in innings and strikeouts and won the Cy Young Award.
In the Division Series against the Astros, he allowed two runs over two starts. He was the winning pitcher in Game 5 of the NLCS, going 8⅔ innings in a 2-1 win (Rick Monday homered in the top of the ninth). He won his only World Series start with a complete game, although he staggered to the finish line of the 5-4 win with seven walks and nine hits. But that's the kind of faith that Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda had in his rookie. The Dodgers had lost the first two games of the World Series. But there was Fernando, escaping a two-on, no-out jam in the eighth when Bobby Murcer bunted into a double play. He struck out Lou Piniella, his 40th batter of the game, to end it. The Dodgers won the next three games.