Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"El Toro" Fernando Valenzuela

I just finished watching the latest ESPN 30 for 30 Fernando Nation directed by Cruz Angeles and have to say that I was thoroughly impressed. I've had some experience with the situation at Chavez Ravine (the current location of Dodger Stadium) during the 1940s and 1950s due to my graduate studies in Urban History. So I was knowledgable on part of the social issues that were in place by the time that Fernando Valenzuela debuted with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981. Watching the documentary put it in full color and HD the effect that Valenzuela had not only on Baseball in 1981 but more importantly the positive effect that one man can have on the Latino population the city of Los Angeles. Given the fact that Valenzuela came from a very rural part of Mexico and thrown head-first into the bright lights of Los Angeles with nary a private moment outside of the ballpark I would say that Valenzuela succeeded. Succeed he did.

The era of Fernandomania was a time of pitching dominance that hadn't been seen in Los Angeles since the glory years of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. In the strike shortened season of 1981, Valenzuela started the season at 8-0 with five shutouts, seven complete games of which the first five were in a row and the one game not completed, Valenzuela pitched the first nine innings of a ten inning game. His ERA over that stretch was 0.50 with 73 strikeouts with only 17 walks in 72 innings pitched. Add this to Valenzuela's 17 2/3 shutout innings of relief over the course of ten games during the stretch run in 1980 to the tune of a 2-0 record with a save. The Dodgers rode the 13-7 Valenzuela straight to a World Series title with a four game to two victory over the New York Yankees. Valenzuela's performance of a league leading 192.1 innings pitched (also a league leading) 180 strikeouts and 61 walks and 8 shoutouts (a Rookie record) earning him both the National League Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards. Valenzuela has the distinction of being the first pitcher to win both awards during the same year.

The next seven seasons (1982-1987) saw Valenzuela average 16 wins (with 12 losses) with an ERA of 3.19 and a workhorse load of an average 266 innings pitched. The highest was 285 innings in 1982 and the lowest amount in that stretch was 257 in 1983. Valenzuela's name was etched next to Hall of Famer (and fellow screwballer) Carl Hubbell when during the 1986 All-Star game Valenzuela struck out five consecutive American League batters including three future Hall of Famers: Dave Winfield, Reggie Jackson and George Brett, tying a record set Hubbell in the 1934 All-Star game (Hubble struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin).

His efficiency diminished during his final three seasons in Los Angeles (1988-1990) by compiling a 28-34 record with a 4.05 ERA with 295 strikeouts and 251 walks. The final bright spot of his Dodgers' career came on June 29, 1990, when Valenzuela threw a 6-0 no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals (on the same day that the Oakland Athletics' Dave Stewart threw a no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays). After his release by the Dodgers during the Spring Training of 1991, Valenzuela spent the better part of six seasons with five different teams before he retired in 1997.

In total, Valenzuela finished with a 173-153 record and a career ERA of 3.54 with 113 complete games in 453 total games. Watching the footage of the fans packing the stadiums both at home and on the road for Valenzuela's starts reminded me of the energy and crowds that Stephen Strausberg starts drew early this season. I don't believe that Valenzuela will ever be enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. But he will always be deemed a hero and an inspiration to Mexican and all Latinos who follow the game of Baseball.

FH

For Further Reading
- Click Here to access the Fernando Valenzuela statistics page from BaseballReference.com
- Click Here to read Jorge Martin's article dated Aug 18, 2006 titled 25 Years After Fernandomania from MLB.com
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