On an April day in 1981 with unlikely circumstances, an unlikely hero with an unlikely physical stature and an uncertain official birth date rocked into his motion, gazed into the heavens, and uncorked a wicked screwball from his left arm. What he didn’t realize at the time was he had not only begun an improbable career, but he had unleashed a potent epidemic that would start in Southern California and spread across the nation. That condition was known as “Fernandomania” and, if you lived in the early 80’s, it was nearly impossible not to catch it.
Its origination, of course, was Fernando Valenzuela. He was a 20-year-old rookie at the time, the youngest of twelve children and from a small village called Etchohuaquila in Sonora, Mexico. But he burst on the scene with the Dodgers after a spirited minor league campaign in 1980 and, of course, by sheer luck. A pre-game injury to Dodgers’ ace, Jerry Reuss, brought El Toro to the mound as the opening day starter. With 50 thousand screaming fans packed into the Chavez Ravine, Tommy Lasorda crossed his fingers and sent the chubby youngster (though many would argue that point) out the to bump to start the season. The rest is history.
El Toro was unhittable from the start. He rocketed off to eight straight victories (a record for rookie pitchers) and won five of them with complete-game shutouts. His ERA was a minuscule 0.50 and he ran a streak of 28 1/3 scoreless innings in the process. It was one of the greatest performances ever registered by a rookie pitcher, and Valenzuela became a legend and an inspiration to the Hispanic communities of Los Angeles and beyond almost overnight.
He would help the Dodgers traverse the strike-shortened season and advance to the 1981 World Series by leading the National League in strikeouts (180), starts (25), innings pitched (192.5), shutouts (8), and complete games (11). He became the only player to win both the Cy Young Award and ROY Award in the same season. He capped it all off with a complete game victory over the Yankees in Game 3 of the World Series. It contributed to the Dodgers’ first championship in over 15 years.
Valenzuela’s performance that season was memorable. But how do you top something like that? The answer: you don’t. Maybe that’s why El Toro’s popularity waned after the 1981 season. It wasn’t because he stopped performing.
He continued his dominance with the Dodgers from 1981-1990, leading the NL in wins in 1986 (21). He made six All Star appearances. In the ’86 All Star game, Valenzuela tied a record set in 1934 by Carl Hubbell when he struck out five consecutive batters. He joined an elite club in 1990 when he pitched a no-hitter against the Cards.
Fernando was no slouch at the plate either. He won Silver Slugger awards in 1981 and 1983. In fact, Valenzuela is still remembered as one of the best hitting pitchers of all time. He has 187 career hits, including 26 doubles, 10 homers, and 84 RBI. The Dodgers even used him as a pinch hitter from time to time, a role in which he racked up a career .368 average.
Of course, these feats all paled in comparison to what El Toro accomplished in his rookie campaign, and he never fully regained that same level of celebrity.
Regardless, Fernando Valenzuela’s legend is cemented forever. He has burned his image into our brains. It is the picture of a short, pudgy, Mexican hurler, his glove stretched high above him and his eyes somehow wandering to a point even beyond that, whipping a screwball past another baffled batter. And each time the image dances through our minds we remember Fernandomania felt pretty darn good.