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Sports Then and Now

Fernando Valenzuela: Remembering Fernandomania

Posted on April 09, 2011 by Dean Hybl

Fernando Valenzuela

It was 30 years ago that the April Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month became a national phenomenon as he captured the hearts and spirits of baseball fans across North America.

The rise of Fernando Valenzuela was exactly what the baseball world needed at a time when labor unrest started to lift its ugly head.

After not allowing an earned run in 10 relief appearances at the end of the 1980 season, the 20-year-old Valenzuela secured a spot in the 1981 rotation for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But it wasn’t until the last minute that he was tapped to start Opening Day and, as they say, the rest was history.

After shutting out the Houston Astros in a 2-0 victory, Valenzuela allowed one run in nine innings in his next start and then reeled off three consecutive shutouts to shockingly complete April with a 5-0 record.

Fernando was among the most popular players in baseball in the 1980s.

By early May “Fernandomania” was in full swing and the slightly overweight lefthander with an unorthodox move that saw him glance to the top of his cap before every pitch continued to grow his legacy.

Valenzuela raised his record to 8-0 while allowing only three earned runs in three complete games. During his amazing eight game run, Valenzuela pitched a complete game in every start and allowed only four earned runs while registering five shutouts.

He suffered his first loss on May 18th when the Phillies tagged him for four runs in seven innings. By mid-June he was 9-4 and while no longer invincible, was still capturing the imagination of a nation and easily the best pitcher in the league.

But as suddenly as he burst onto the scene, Fernandomania took a hiatus. Not because of anything that Valenzuela had done, but because of the 50-day baseball player’s strike.

When baseball returned in August, Valenzuela started the All-Star Game and then settled back into his role as the ace of the Dodgers.

He won his first four decisions after the layoff before ending the season with three disappointing losses, including a 1-0 loss to the Padres in his final start in which he allowed only one unearned run.

Though his special season was interrupted by the strike, Valenzuela ended up winning the NL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards.

His magical season got even better in October as the Dodgers defeated the Astros and Expos to reach the World Series.

Down two games to none to the hated New York Yankees, Valenzuela took the mound for game three and though he didn’t have his best performance, he gutted it out through nine innings to pitch a complete game in a 5-4 Dodger victory. Los Angeles went on to win the next three games to claim the World Series title.

The next season Valenzuela proved that he wasn’t a one-year wonder as he went 19-13 with a 2.87 earned run average.

During his first seven seasons with the Dodgers, he registered a 111-82 record with a 3.11 ERA and 1,448 strikeouts. However, with the exception of the strike-shortened 1981 season he pitched at least 250 innings in each season and the years of strain eventually took a toll on his career.

Valenzuela pitched in only 23 games in 1988 and went 5-8. The following season he posted a 10-13 record and in 1990 went 13-13 with a career-worst 4.59 ERA.

He did have one shining moment in 1990 as on June 29th he registered a no hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals. The no-no was part of a special night as his former teammate Dave Stewart, then with the Oakland A’s, also recorded a no-hitter making it the first time there were two no-hitters in the same night.

Valenzuela pitched for five different teams in his final six big leagues seasons.

It looked like Valenzuela’s career might be over following the 1990 season as he was released by the Dodgers during the 1991 spring training. He eventually signed with the California Angels, but allowed nine earned runs in two starts and was eventually released.

He was signed by the Detroit Tigers, but didn’t pitch in the major leagues in 1992.

The following year, he joined the Baltimore Orioles and had a slight resurgence going 8-10 in 31 starts.

After pitching for the Phillies in 1994, he returned to California in 1995 and spent two and a half seasons with the San Diego Padres. His best season during the stretch was in 1996 when he went 13-8 with a 3.62 ERA.

Unfortunately, it proved to be his last hurrah as Valenzuela split the 1997 season between the Padres and St. Louis Cardinals before retiring.

Though his career marks of a 173-153 record and 3.54 ERA aren’t quite good enough to get him a spot in the Hall of Fame, Valenzuela was one of the best pitchers of the 1980s and a six time All-Star. In addition to winning the Cy Young Award in 1981 he finished second in the voting in 1986 and placed in the top five in the voting four times.

However, Valenzuela will always be remembered as the fun-loving youngster from   Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico with an infectious smile and a million dollar arm. In 1981 he helped baseball get past their first-ever significant loss of games due to labor unrest and set the stage for a solid career.

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