Fernandomania flashbacks: How the Dodgers legend's rise to fame began with the Astros

ByPaul Gutierrez ESPN logo
Wednesday, October 25, 2017

LOS ANGELES -- Tommy Lasorda had a problem that day in 1981.

The day before the season was to begin, the Los Angeles Dodgers manager suddenly needed an Opening Day pitcher to face the defending National League West champion Houston Astros. Jerry Reuss had tweaked a calf jogging in the Dodger Stadium parking lot and Burt Hooton was dealing with an ingrown toenail.

Lasorda turned to the cherubic left-hander getting his work in on the side, the rookie who had never started a game in the big leagues and was slated to be the Dodgers' No. 3 starter after making 10 scoreless appearances as a September call-up the previous season.

Lasorda looked Fernando Valenzuela, who was all of 20 years old, up and down and asked if he was ready to start the next day.

"Claro," Valenzuela shot back. "Si."

Of course. Yes.

And with that, Fernandomania was born. All Valenzuela did the afternoon of April 9, 1981, was baffle the Astros with a complete-game, five-hit shutout as the Dodgers won 2-0 in a spiffy 2 hours, 17 minutes.

"It was one of my greatest games, one of my biggest moments because we won the game," Valenzuela told ESPN.com this week. "It was important I do good. I didn't know if [I] would stay in the rotation.

"Those are good memories."

And now, with the Dodgers playing those same Astros in the World Series (Houston moved to the NL Central in 1994 before relocating to the American League West in 2013), those flashbacks are all too tangible.

The cultural phenomenon of Fernandomania, which turned Dodger Stadium into a Cinco de Mayo celebration every time the native of Etchohuaquila, Mexico, took the mound has deep roots with Houston.

Valenzuela made three appearances against the Astros in the final series of the 1980 season, when the Dodgers needed to sweep them at home to force a one-game playoff.

They did.

Valenzuela authored two scoreless innings in the first game and two more a couple days later before Lasorda went with high-priced free-agent Dave Goltz to start the tie-breaker. Goltz was shelled, but Valenzuela threw two more shutout innings in mop-up duty.

"In my book, that's when Fernandomania started," said Dodgers Hall of Fame Spanish broadcaster Jaime Jarrin, who also served as Valenzuela's interpreter. "That's when people became aware of Fernando. Not only in Los Angeles, but the whole country."

Getting work in a playoff race, and pitching well against the Astros in 1980 gave Valenzuela confidence for that Opening Day start.

"That helped a lot," Valenzuela said. "The nerves come when you don't know what's going to happen. For me, in that situation, it was just like another game. I think that's the reason a lot of people were surprised."

Mixing in the screwball Dodgers reliever Bobby Castillo taught him two years earlier in the Arizona Fall League, Valenzuela and his funky windup in which his eyes rolled up into his head as if he were looking to the heavens for guidance kept the Astros powerful lineup off balance all afternoon.

Craig Reynolds had two of Houston's five hits and Valenzuela did flirt with danger in the sixth inning. Cesar Cedeño doubled to left field to put Reynolds at third with one out in a game the Dodgers were leading 1-0. But Jose Cruz lined out to Bill Russell at shortstop and then Valenzuela induced an Art Howe ground ball to the mound to end the threat.

A Pedro Guerrero double with two out in the bottom of the sixth scored Steve Garvey and that was all Valenzuela would need. He struck out Dave Roberts swinging on a screwball to end the game and as catcher Mike Scioscia rushed to the mound to congratulate Valenzuela after besting Joe Niekro, Vin Scully said on the broadcast, "And a little child shall lead them."

If you have a sombrero, throw it to the sky, indeed.

No, Valenzuela does not breathe through his eyelids like a Galapagos lava lizard, despite what Susan Sarandon's Annie Savoy of "Bull Durham" might say.

And yet ...

"He was something never seen before," Jarrin said of Valenzuela. "He was a little chubby. A Yaqui Indian with long hair and spoke no English. Of course, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were drawn to him, but also the Anglos."

Especially after he followed up that Opening Day start with seven more wins and four more shutouts. He was the first pitcher to win his first eight career starts since Dave "Boo" Ferris did it in 1945 for the Boston Red Sox.

After beating the Montreal Expos on May 14, 1981, Valenzuela was 8-0 with five shutouts and a 0.50 earned-run average.

"This guy has electrified the baseball world," Lasorda said at the time.

It was estimated attendance jumped from 7,000-10,000 whenever Valenzuela pitched in the halcyon days of Fernandomania.

"No single player created more baseball fans than Fernando," Jarrin said. "People in Mexico, Central America and South America became fans of the Dodgers. Especially women. They would pray the Rosary. And this was everywhere we went. Not just at Dodger Stadium. Everyone wanted a piece of Fernando.

"Scalpers would sell tickets, shirts and tacos. Outside of the stadium. It was like a pilgrimage to the Virgen de Guadalupe."

Fernandomania surprised even Valenzuela himself, because, as he said, the Dodgers had a lot of great players with long careers so it was strange to him to focus on one player. Imagine his wonder, then, when the Dodger Stadium organist began playing bullfighting music to accompany "El Toro" for his trip from the dugout to the mound.

But his has been compared to a Horatio Alger story, or Cinderella. Because though making the major league minimum salary of $32,500 in 1981, he would become the first player to win both the National League Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards. And he would gut out a Game 3 victory in the World Series against the New York Yankees that October, which would jump-start the Dodgers to a 4-2 series win after they lost the first two games.

Valenzuela was injured when the Dodgers won their most recent World Series, in 1988, and was released in spring training of 1991 but he has been back with the organization since 2003, when he joined Jarrin in the broadcast booth. Now, he is on the Spanish television side, with Pepe Yñiguez.

Though Valenzuela's jersey is not retired by the Dodgers, no Dodgers player has worn No. 34 since him in 1990. And for good reason.

"The ballpark became a place," Jarrin, who has been calling Dodgers games since 1959, said before pausing, "very hard to describe. Fernandomania is a phenomenon not only in the sports world, but in all of society."

In that May 14, 1981, game against the Expos that gave Valenzuela an 8-0 record, it took a walk-off homer by Guerrero to set it off at Chavez Ravine.

"It's gone, Fernando, it's gone," Scully said as Guerrero rounded the bases with a victory for Valenzuela in his back pocket. "There are no words to express what's going on here. The sound of a cheering crowd tells it all. The Fernando Valenzuela magic is alive and well.

"Who's to say when it will end?"

It all began with the Astros.