Remembering Fernandomania, 40 Years Later

The mystery pitcher began appearing in my morning box scores during the second half of September 1980. Sometimes he was Valenzuela, others Valenzla, but every time I looked, he had zeroes next to his name. I couldn’t find him in my baseball card set, my Street & Smith’s Official Yearbook 1980, or my Complete Handbook of Baseball 1980. All I knew was that suddenly he was one of the Dodgers’ most reliable relievers, a rookie thrown into the fire of a three-way NL West race between the Dodgers, Astros, and Reds.

What I didn’t know was that just over six months later, everybody who was anybody would know the name Fernando Valenzuela and the trail of zeroes he left in his wake. Fernandomania was coming.

Forty years ago, on April 9, 1981, a portly 20-year-old rookie southpaw from Mexico — listed at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, but generally presumed to be at least 20 pounds heavier — began a run that set the baseball world on its ear. Over the course of his first eight major league starts, including an emergency turn on Opening Day in place of the injured Jerry Reuss, Valenzuela would go undefeated while throwing seven complete games, five of them via shutout. Despite speaking barely a word of English, he became an instant celebrity on the strength of a bashful smile and impeccable command of his screwball, delivered with a distinctive motion that included a skyward gaze at the peak of his windup.

Fernando Valenzuela’s First Eight Major League Starts
Date Opponent Dec/Inngs IP H R ER BB SO Season ERA
4/9/81 Astros W (1-0), SHO 9 5 0 0 2 5 0.00
4/14/81 @Giants W (2-0), CG 9 4 1 1 2 10 0.50
4/18/81 @Padres W (3-0), SHO 9 5 0 0 0 10 0.33
4/22/81 @Astros W (4-0), SHO 9 7 0 0 3 11 0.25
4/27/81 Giants W (5-0), SHO 9 7 0 0 4 7 0.20
5/3/81 @Expos W (6-0), GS-9 9 5 1 1 0 7 0.33
5/8/81 @Mets W (7-0), SHO 9 7 0 0 5 11 0.29
5/14/81 Expos W (8-0), CG 9 3 2 2 1 7 0.50
Totals 8-0, 7 CG, 5 SHO 72 43 4 4 17 68 0.50
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Some wondered if the pitch or even the pitcher was heaven-sent — a gift, perhaps, from the Big Dodger in the Sky. This 11-year-old had no doubt, particularly when Valenzuela went on to help the Dodgers win the World Series later during that strike-torn year.

By the time Fernandomania took hold, I was an avid third-generation Dodgers fan whose daily business began with the Salt Lake Tribune’s sports page, and specifically its box scores. I had learned to read the magical morsels of microscopic type in the summer of 1978, as the Dodgers came from behind to win their second straight NL West title and claim their second straight pennant as well, before losing to the Yankees in the World Series, again. Valenzuela’s late-1980 run out of the bullpen — 17.2 innings pitched, two runs allowed, both unearned, 16 strikeouts, and a 2-0 record with a save — whetted my appetite for more of this mysterious Mexican lefty.

That run wasn’t quite enough to help the Dodgers win the NL West in 1980. The team lost eight of its first 12 games after he arrived, which made mop-up opportunities plentiful, but even so, the Dodgers trailed the Astros by just two games as of September 26, with eight still to play. They won six, including three must-win games against Houston on the final weekend of the season, all by a single run to force a tiebreaker game. While Valenzuela would have been an inspired choice to start, he’d worked two innings the day before. Manager Tommy Lasorda instead tabbed Free Agent Flop Dave Goltz (I swear that became his legal name, though official sources disagree), who got shellacked. By the time I rushed home from school to watch, Valenzuela was pitching, albeit on the short end of a 7-1 score. Wait ’til next year.

I wasn’t alone in my readiness for More Fernando. Though he had jumped to the majors straight from Double-A San Antonio — thereby forgoing the horrors of high-altitude Albuquerque and the other hitters’ havens of the Pacific Coast League (including Salt Lake City) — Valenzuela was featured alongside second baseman Jack Perconte and catcher Mike Scioscia on the 1981 Topps Dodgers Future Stars card, which came out in the spring; the upstart Fleer company, issuing its first set in decades, even gave the rookie a card of his own. Sports Illustrated’s Steve Wulf had sketched out Valenzuela’s back story over the course of 2,500 words in the March 23, 1981 issue of the magazine:

The Natural is supposed to be a blue-eyed boy who teethed on a 36-ounce Louisville Slugger. He should run like the wind and throw boysenberries through brick. He should come from California.

The Dodgers have one this year, only he’s El Natural. His name is Fernando Valenzuela, and with apologies to the 150 citizens of Etchohuaquila, Mexico, he comes from nowhere. His ancestry is Mayan Indian, and he speaks just enough English to order a beer. He is a left-handed pitcher, and his body is more reminiscent of former Dodger left-hander Tommy Lasorda than it is of former Dodger left-hander Sandy Koufax. His future is more Koufax, though, than Lasorda.

…In the short time he spent with LA., he captured the heart of the Mexican community that surrounds Dodger Stadium, and it is no coincidence that he graces the back cover of the Dodgers’ 1981 media guide.

As Wulf explained, Valenzuela, the youngest of 12 children had been discovered as a 17-year-old by superscout Mike Brito (he of the omnipresent Panama hat and radar gun). The Dodgers paid the Puebla club of the Mexican League $120,000 for the rights to Valenzuela, who received $20,000 of that sum. Puebla owner Jaime Avella honored a commitment to give the Dodgers first crack at Valenzuela despite the Yankees offering $150,000.

After an impressive three-start initiation with A-level Lodi, the Dodgers sent Valenzuela to the Arizona Instructional League, where Bobby Castillo — a Brito discovery who had washed out as an infielder in the Royals’ organization but had dominated the Mexican League in 1976 and ’77 before being signed by the Dodgers — taught the young lefty the screwball. Castillo had picked up tips both from major league reliever Enrique Romo and the greatest screwballer of all time, Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell, who counseled his protege to throw both a fast screwball and a slow one.

Valenzuela proved to be a quick study, more than holding his own as a 19-year-old at San Antonio; he was called up to Los Angeles after going 7-0 with a 0.87 ERA and 78 strikeouts in his final 62 innings, a Texas League dry run for the coming streak. Even as a virtually unknown reliever, he drew increasingly loud ovations upon entered games, particularly because he was just the second native Mexican to pitch for the Dodgers since their move to Los Angeles — significant given the franchise’s original sin of evicting nearly 2,000 Mexican-American families from the Chavez Ravine barrio in the service of building Dodger Stadium, which opened in 1962.

With the Dodgers letting staff stalwart Don Sutton depart in free agency after the 1980 season, the pump was primed for the team to produce a third straight NL Rookie of the Year to follow Rick Sutcliffe (1979) and Steve Howe (1980). Expected to battle Sutcliffe — who had struggled the year before — for the fifth starter job behind Reuss, Burt Hooton, Bob Welch and Goltz, he essentially beat out the the last of those, but it wasn’t until Reuss suffered a calf strain that he got the Opening Day assignment. Facing the Astros (coincidentally enough) in front of 50,511 fans at Dodger Stadium, he spun a five-hit shutout, striking out five over the course of 106 pitches. Five days later at Candlestick Park, he held the Giants to four hits and one run while striking out 10 in another complete game.

It must have been around the point when Valenzuela followed up with a five-hit, 10-strikeout shutout of the Padres in San Diego on April 18 — on three days of rest, for some reason — that I was moved to action. In the days before recycling was a city-wide thing, my parents kept stacks of Tribunes in the garage, either to tie up and drop at a local recycling facility or else to use in the fireplace that winter. It was through such a stack that I had once retraced the arc of the 1978 NL West race as the Dodgers overcame the Giants in mid-August. This time, I went back and clipped the box scores from Valenzuela’s previous starts, taping them to a sheet of notebook paper in a three-ring binder. On another sheet, I kept a running stat line that helped me to calculate his minuscule ERA (they didn’t put those in the box scores of yesteryear, kids).

I’m honestly not sure how much Valenzuela I actually saw on TV during his run, though he was much easier to find later in the season. In Salt Lake City, we were limited to the games on national networks; I was fanatical about watching NBC’s Game of the Week on Saturdays, and ABC usually had games on Sunday or Monday, but at best only a few of the starts from his great run lined up with those offerings. Box scores, game stories, weekly Sports Illustrateds, baseball cards, the occasional broadcast of Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett that my father somehow conjured up — those and my active imagination filled in the gaps.

Valenzuela made his next start on three days of rest as well, this time against the Astros and Sutton in Houston. He scuffled early, but helped to erase a leadoff double by Terry Puhl by running Puhl down himself on a sacrifice bunt attempt, and with runners on second and third struck out both Jose Cruz and Mike Ivie to end the first inning. After walking two in the second, he induced Sutton to ground into an inning-ending double play. With the game still scoreless, Pedro Guerrero led off the top of the fifth inning with a double and took third on a Scioscia fly ball. One out later, Valenzuela drove him in with a single to left field — his second hit of the night — that proved to be the game’s only run. Valenzuela ended up scattering seven hits and five walks while striking out 11.

Within 24 hours of that win, the Dodgers had sold out all of the reserved seats for Valenzuela’s next start in Dodger Stadium — an unprecedented occurrence, as team vice president Fred Claire told Sports Illustrated. The word “Fernandomania” made its debut in print across the top of a Scott Ostler column in the April 27 edition of the Los Angeles Times; within, the Dodgers’ Spanish language broadcaster Jaime Jarrín, who was doubling as Valenzuela’s interpreter, said, “I’ve been doing Dodger games for 24 years and I’ve never seen this kind of reaction to a ballplayer.” So many people questioned Valenzuela’s age that the Los Angeles Times printed a copy of his birth certificate.

In front of 49,478 fans for just his second home start of the streak, Valenzuela again worked out of early trouble, stranding seven baserunners over the first four frames. For his second start in a row, he drove in the game’s first run, this time keying a four-run fourth-inning rally. He scattered seven hits and four walks while striking out “only” seven, and went 3-for-4, raising his batting average to .438. Fernandomania, indeed.

The streak, which to this point had helped the Dodgers to a sizzling 14-3 start, led Sports Illustrated to revisit Valenzuela, this time with Jim Kaplan writing about “The Epidemic of Fernando Fever” for its May 4 edition. Within, Kaplan described Valenzuela’s delivery:

Delivered with a high-kicking motion that brings to mind Juan Marichal, Valenzuela’s scroogie tails away from right-handed hitters. When righties crowd the plate to get a better shot at it, Valenzuela jams them with an inside fastball he perfected under the tutelage of Pitching Coach Ron Perranoski. But like most outstanding pitchers, Valenzuela relies as much on carefully nurtured skills as raw ability. “He can hit either corner with his fastball, throw the scroogie at two different speeds and come in with a fine curve,” says Perranoski.

Elsewhere, Kaplan noted that Valenzuela threw his screwball 60% to 70% of the time, but wasn’t afraid to shake off Scioscia and mix up his pitches. Delving into the cultural phenomenon and Valenzuela’s connection to the large Hispanic community in the region, Kaplan also noted the prevalence of stereotypes in the media coverage of the rookie pitcher:

Because Valenzuela speaks through interpreters and discloses little about himself, some English-speaking reporters have described him in one-dimensional terms. Some would have their readers believe that his English vocabulary is limited to yes, no, television, food and six-pack. “He struts around the mound like a Mexican general,” wrote one reporter. Other comments have included “Valenzuela’s nickname should be Pauncho” and “Maybe he’ll overdose on burritos and beer.” Typifying this sort of coverage was a cartoon in the Herald Examiner that pictured Valenzuela as a matador fighting a bull labeled “National League hitters.” Mexican-Americans and Spanish-speaking reporters have objected to this treatment of Valenzuela, justifiably claiming that it smacks of stereotyping; Valenzuela’s friends protest merely that the real Fernando isn’t being captured.

The increased attention from the media led Valenzuela to complain to agent Antonio De Marco that he didn’t have enough time to take batting practice, shag fly balls, or otherwise prepare for his starts, so when the Dodgers embarked upon their first East Coast road trip of the season, they laid down new ground rules: one press conference his first day in town, another after he pitched, but no more than that.

Fernandomania traveled north of the border to Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, where 46,405 fans — more than the total for the day before and the day after — watched Valenzuela take on the Expos. Opposite Bill Gullickson, he didn’t allow a ball out of the infield until the sixth inning, and carried a shutout into the eighth, running his scoreless streak to 36 innings, but gave up three singles and a game-tying run. He stayed in the game, which remained tied through nine innings. Lasorda lifted him for pinch-hitter Reggie Smith in the top of the 10th; Smith’s one-out single off Gullickson brought in the first of five runs, giving Valenzuela his sixth straight victory.

In New York, Valenzuela encountered a media circus of more than 100 people in the Shea Stadium Diamond Club, including SI’s Kaplan, checking in again for what would become the magazine’s May 18 cover story. Facing the Mets in front of 39,848 fans, he was again wobbly in the early innings as he failed to locate his screwball. He escaped bases-loaded jams in the first two innings and stranded two in the third, but he got things under control, and finished with an 11-strikeout shutout and a 1-0 victory. According to Kaplan, he had thrown 137 pitches, a career high.

“Like a crafty fish, Valenzuela had allowed the Mets a good chase (five walks, seven hits) but no catch,” wrote Kaplan. “And like frustrated fishermen, the Mets had nothing to show for their efforts but exasperation.”

Valenzuela and the Dodgers returned home to face the Expos on May 14. In front of 53,906 fans, he held the Expos to three hits, but two of them were solo homers. A third-inning shot by Chris Speier was not only the first that Valenzuela had surrendered in the majors but the first time that he had fallen behind on the scoreboard all season. An eighth-inning homer by Andre Dawson tied the score at 2-2. Minutes after that happened, Guerrero led off the ninth with a solo homer off Steve Ratzer, making Valenzuela a winner yet again.

With victories in the first eight starts of his career, Valenzuela had matched a feat last accomplished by Red Sox right-hander Dave “Boo” Ferriss in 1945. With no Baseball-Reference Play Index in those days, the writers who had frequently invoked Ferriss’ name during Valenzuela’s run likely didn’t know that the precocious lefty had matched the feat of an even bigger name in baseball history — or that both had been far outdone:

Longest Streak of Winning Starts to Begin Career
Pitcher Tean Year W CG SHO IP ERA
Hooks Wiltse Giants 1904 12 10 1 100.0 unk*
Christy Mathewson Giants 1901 8 8 4 72.0 0.50
John Whitehead White Sox 1935 8 7 1 72.1 2.86
Dave Ferriss Red Sox 1945 8 8 4 72.0 0.75
Fernando Valenzuela Dodgers 1981 8 7 5 72.0 0.50
George Winter Red Sox 1901 7 7 0 59.0 1.98
Joe Boehling Senators 1913 7 6 2 60.1 1.64
Duster Mails Indians 1920 7 6 2 55.0 2.13
Vic Raschi Yankees 1946 7 6 1 57.1 2.67
Jered Weaver Angels 2006 7 0 0 47.0 1.15
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* While Wilte’s season total of earned runs is known, his game-by-game breakdown is not.

Valenzuela graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s May 18 issue with the headline “Unreal!” A year later, after taking a class in BASIC, I would teach myself how to program high-resolution graphics on our family’s Apple II+ by tracing over this cover with graph paper and painstakingly typing in the coordinates. Two decades and change later, with my own copy of the magazine long gone, I would purchase a replacement on eBay.

“Will the Bubble Ever Burst?” asked the headline of Kaplan’s story, accompanying a photo of the phenom blowing a bubble while sitting on the Dodgers’ bench. The bubble burst, in fact, on May 18 — the cover jinx strikes again — when Valenzuela, working on three days of rest, was roughed up for four runs in seven innings by the Phillies, the defending champions. That not only ended my box score clipping but began a three-start skid during which Valenzuela yielded 16 runs (15 earned) in 18.2 innings, ballooning his ERA to 1.89; in the last of those starts, on May 28 in Atlanta, he was chased during a seven-run fourth inning.

Valenzuela righted the ship with a two-run, 11-strikeout complete game against the Braves on June 1 (yet another start on three days of rest), then alternated bad and good starts. Between those two outings, he accepted an invitation from President Ronald Reagan to attend a state luncheon at the White House honoring Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo. Now that was unreal.

Valenzuela’s last start fell on June 11, the final day before the Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike over the issue of free agent compensation, meaning what a team losing a player to another team was entitled to, an issue that the players believed was an attempt to undermine players’ new-found rights. It was the fifth work stoppage in MLBPA history but the first midseason player strike, and it was a doozy, lasting 50 days.

Valenzuela was 9-4 with a 2.45 ERA at the time. The Dodgers, who had led the NL West by as much as 6 1/2 games in late May before losing nine out of 14, were 36-21, half a game ahead of the Reds in the NL West race. The strike was a bummer, but living in a city with a Triple-A team, and visiting my grandparents in a city with a Low-A club — Walla Walla, Washington, where I saw Tony Gwynn, previously known to me as an all-Western Athletic Conference point guard, start his professional career — I wasn’t starved for baseball.

And I didn’t resent the players. I had already read Jim Bouton’s Ball Four once or twice, and while the four-letter words and the stories of Mickey Mantle were of greater interest at that point, I knew who Marvin Miller was and understood his and the union’s role in attempting to level the playing field against the owners and their constant shenanigans. Ball Four made it abundantly clear even to a pre-teen that baseball executives were doing more screwing than Mantle.

Play finally resumed with the All-Star Game on August 9. Valenzuela got the starting nod and worked a scoreless inning, surrendering singles to Rod Carew (who was soon caught stealing) and Willie Randolph, then getting George Brett and Dave Winfield to ground out.

His second half wasn’t as sensational as the first, but he picked up steam in late August, allowing seven runs across a six-start, 52-inning stretch. He struck out a season-high 12 against the Cardinals on August 22, threw four-hit shutouts against the Cubs on August 27 and then the Cardinals on September 6, separated by a 10-inning, one-run outing against the Pirates on September 1. He spun his eighth shutout of the year, a three-hitter against the Braves on September 17. Strike or no, that gave him a share of the record for a rookie, matching dead-ball era pitchers Russ Ford (1910) and Reb Russell (1913).

Thanks to that late run, Valenzuela finished the regular season 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA (seventh in the NL). His 25 starts, 11 complete games, 192.1 innings and 180 strikeouts — in just over two-thirds of a season, remember — all led the league. WAR hadn’t been invented yet, of course, but whether by FanGraphs’ reckoning (4.9 fWAR) or that of Baseball-Reference (4.8 bWAR), Valenzuela ranked second to Steve Carlton, though his offense (.250/.262/.281) either pulled him into a tie with the future Hall of Famer (5.3 fWAR) or narrowed the gap (5.3 bWAR to 5.5). Via another stat that hadn’t been invented, K+% (adjusted strikeout rate), Valenzuela’s 184 mark led the league, though it took a back seat to the rookie record held by Herb Score (222) and would soon be surpassed by fireballing Mets phenom Dwight Gooden (212 in 1984).

The Dodgers did not play particularly well after the strike, going 27-26, but they didn’t have to, because the powers that be agreed upon a split-season format in which the teams that led their divisions at the time of the strike would qualify for a best-of-five series to be played against the division leaders from the second half; the winner of those series would advance to the best-of-five League Championship Series. With second baseman Davey Lopes struggling and injured, the Dodgers used the second half to take a long look at Steve Sax; Lopes, a pending free agent, would depart after the season, breaking up the Longest Running Infield, which included first baseman Steve Garvey, shortstop Bill Russell, and third baseman Ron Cey and which had been together since mid-1973, anchoring three pennant winners.

The split-season format was controversial, because in the cases of both NL divisions, the teams with the best overall records, the Cardinals (59-43) and Reds (66-42), failed to qualify for the postseason. Then again, the first half-winning teams might have played with greater urgency had they not been assured of a playoff berth.

For the first Division Series, the Dodgers faced off against — who else? – the Astros, with Valenzuela getting the nod against Nolan Ryan, who had no-hit them on September 26, surpassing Koufax with his record-breaking fifth no-no. While center fielder Ken Landreaux broke up Ryan’s no-hit bid with one out in the first inning of this one, the Dodgers managed just a lone walk against him over the next five frames. The game remained scoreless until the bottom of the sixth, when the Astros scratched out a two-out rally on singles by Puhl and Tony Scott sandwiching a walk by Phil Garner. Garvey countered with a solo homer in the next frame, but that would be the Dodgers’ only other hit on the night. With the score tied in the ninth, Valenzuela was pulled for pinch-hitter Jay Johnstone to no avail, and the Astros won in the bottom of the frame on Alan Ashby’s two-out, two-run homer off Dave Stewart.

In the parched run environment of the Astrodome, the Astros walked off in Game 2 as well via a 1-0 win in 11 innings, pushing the Dodgers’ season to the brink. With the series shifting to Los Angeles, they won Game 3, 6-1, and Valenzuela returned on three days of rest (his sixth time of doing so that year), this time matched up against Vern Ruhle. The 20-year-old rookie was stifling, retiring the first 13 hitters he faced before Cesar Cedeno singled and then was caught stealing. A fifth-inning solo homer by Guerrero and an insurance run in the seventh gave Valenzuela all the cushion he needed; he yielded just four hits and a walk, though the Astros broke through for a run with two outs in the ninth. The Dodgers would win the rubber game behind a five-hit shutout by Reuss, advancing them to the NLCS against the Expos.

With the series starting in L.A., the Dodgers took the opener behind Hooton, but Valenzuela, again on short rest, was touched for three runs in six innings in Game 2 while his teammates were shut out by Ray Burris, who allowed just five hits. The Expos won Game 3 back in Montreal, but the Dodgers, again on the brink of elimination, countered with a Game 4 win, rallying for six runs in the eighth and ninth to break open a 1-1 game.

Valenzuela returned for Game 5, which was delayed a day by snow and cold weather in Montreal, affording both him (and Burris) a full four days of rest for a change.

The Expos struck first, when rookie speedster Tim Raines hit a leadoff double, took third on a sacrifice bunt when Raines beat Valenzuela’s throw, and scored on a double play grounder by Dawson. Valenzuela himself drove in the game-tying run in the fifth via an RBI groundout after singles by Rick Monday and Guerrero and a wild pitch. The 1-1 deadlock held until the ninth inning, when staff ace Steve Rogers came on in relief after Burris was lifted for a pinch-hitter. With two outs and nobody on, Monday hit a sinker that didn’t sink until it had cleared the center field wall, giving the Dodgers the lead.

With Valenzuela having thrown “only” 96 pitches through eight, Lasorda sent him back out for the ninth. He quickly retired the first two hitters, then labored, walking both Gary Carter and Larry Parrish on a total of 13 pitches. Lasorda gave his lefty the hook in favor of Welch, who needed just one pitch to retire Jerry White and send the Dodgers back to the World Series.

The World Series! Against the Yankees! As a kid who desperately wanted to witness the Dodgers winning a championship against their historic rivals, I could only imagine how the players — so many of whom were on the 1977 and ’78 teams that had lost those two Fall Classics — must have felt. But I understood this, felt it in my bones: Fernando was the equalizer, and the Dodgers, who had just won five straight elimination games, were the team of destiny.

The Yankees appeared to have other ideas. Even with Reggie Jackson missing the first two games due to a leg injury suffered while running the bases in the ALCS, the team took the first two games in the Bronx, with Ron Guidry and ex-Dodger Tommy John shutting down the Dodgers’ offense, aided by third baseman Graig Nettles reprising his defensive acrobatics from the 1978 World Series. My certainty about the Dodgers and destiny was shaken.

Valenzuela was not, though by this point, with 223 regular- and postseason innings under his belt, and with just three days of rest, he wasn’t sharp. Nonetheless, he gutted out the start of a lifetime, drawing upon a seemingly endless wellspring of calm as he kept the Yankees at bay in front of 56,236 fans, a Dodger Stadium record that would fall the next night. He worked around two first-inning walks with a double play ball off the bat of Lou Piniella, after which the Dodgers staked him to a lead thanks to a three-run homer by Cey off Dave Righetti, the Yankees’ own rookie lefty phenom. Bob Watson led off the Yankees’ second with a solo homer, and a Rick Cerone double and a Larry Milbourne single cut the lead to 3-2. With Valenzuela having retired just three out of eight batters, Lasorda ordered Goltz to warm up. Righetti’s sacrifice bunt moved the tying run into scoring position, and Valenzuela then walked Randolph for the second time, but Lasorda showed his faith in his prodigy, who retired Jerry Mumphrey on a comebacker.

But Valenzuela’s troubles continued, as Cerone mashed a two-out, two-run homer in the third to give the Yankees a 4-3 lead. From Jason Turbow, in an excerpt of his book on the Dodgers’ 1981 season, They Bled Blue:

To buy himself some time, the manager trudged slowly to the mound. By this point, Goltz was loose, and Valenzuela figured that he was done for. Why else would Lasorda come out rather than send pitching coach Ron Perranoski? The answer was that Lasorda wanted to see for himself just what his pitcher had left. No detail in particular fueled the manager’s decision, but something about Valenzuela’s demeanor convinced him. Instead of yanking Fernando, Lasorda gave him a pep talk. “If you don’t give up another run,” he said in Spanish, according to ESPN, “we’re going to win this ballgame.” Si no te rindes otra carrera, vamos a ganar este juego.

Valenzuela stared at his manager and responded in English: “Are you sure?”

Lasorda must have gotten a few more gray hairs when the next two batters reached base, but Valenzuela escaped by striking out Righetti with his 72nd pitch; to that point he had allowed 10 baserunners. He wasn’t done pitching out of jams — indeed, he wouldn’t throw a clean inning until the seventh — but the Dodgers took the lead on a two-run rally in the fifth against relievers George Frazier (who would be charged with three losses in the series) and Rudy May. Righetti had failed to retire either of the two batters he faced after hitting for himself in what turned out to be a pivotal blunder by manager Bob Lemon. An added benefit of removing the Yankees’ southpaw was that Lasorda could replace righty-swinging catcher Steve Yeager, who had caught Valenzuela just twice all season, with the lefty-swinging Scioscia, his regular batterymate.

The Yankees didn’t go quietly; Valenzuela needed a double play off the bat of Bobby Murcer after putting the first two men on base in the eighth. With his pitch count past 130, and with the left-handed Howe and the right-handed Stewart getting loose in the bullpen, he retired Mumphrey, Winfield, and Piniella in order in the ninth, striking out Sweet Lou swinging at a fastball.

The final tally: 147 pitches according to Baseball-Reference, nine hits, seven walks (tying Guidry’s World Series record, set in Game 3 of the 1978 matchup against the Dodgers when the Yankees were down two games to none), and six strikeouts. His 41 batters faced was one short of the World Series record set by the Orioles’ Mike Flanagan in the 1979 opener.

It wasn’t pretty, but Valenzuela got the job done, and turned the World Series. The Dodgers won Games 4 and 5 by one run apiece, then blew out the Yankees in the Bronx in Game 6 to claim their first championship since 1965, and the first of my lifetime. Valenzuela, lined up for a potential Game 7, could finally rest his arm.

As a fan, I was on cloud nine. Valenzuela had quickly become my favorite player, not that I held the likes of Cey, Lopes, Guerrero and Smith in any less esteem; for their offensive heroics, Cey and Guerrero shared co-MVP honors with Yeager. Great players all, but they lacked the special something of Fernando.

A couple of weeks after the World Series ended, Valenzuela not only beat out Raines for NL Rookie of the Year honors, he became the first rookie to win a Cy Young award, edging Tom Seaver for that honor. The heavy workload that the young lefty so willingly carried that season did not break him. On the contrary, Valenzuela continued to excel, posting a 3.04 ERA (116 ERA+) over the next five seasons while averaging 269 innings per year, making the NL All-Star team in each of those seasons. His 31.9 fWAR from 1981-86 outdid all other pitchers by over six wins; his 27.1 bWAR ranked second only to Dave Stieb (33.6). He finished third in the Cy Young voting in 1982, and second in ’86. Not until 1988 did he finally land on the Disabled List due to a stretched anterior capsule, breaking a streak of 255 consecutive starts. That he missed the Dodgers’ unlikely championship run was bittersweet, but it was Orel Hershiser’s turn to shine.

The spring after that championship, won while I was a freshman in college, my family arranged to have me meet them for my spring break in Orlando, Florida, close enough to get to Dodgertown for four games. Only then did I get to see my favorite player pitch in person. By that point, he was basically a league-average hurler, though he still had some highlights in his arm, including a 1990 no-hitter and an unlikely renaissance with the Padres in 1996, after he passed through the hands of three other teams. He didn’t compile strong enough numbers to make it to the Hall of Fame — oh, if ever there were a case to mount, I’d be all over it — but his heroics were the apex of my childhood fandom.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 years ago

Thats awesome how you organized the box scores in a binder. Thanks for sharing the image of that, it really puts Valenzuela’s insane run in 1981 into perspective, seeing all those dominant complete games side-by-side. I can see what they mean by “Fernandomania” now, must’ve been an incredible season to watch!