In 1981, Fernando Valenzuela woke up from a nap and started throwing and winning, triggering the phenomenon known as “Fernandomania” and almost single-handedly mending a broken relationship between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Mexican-American community in the city. As a reminder, the 20-year-old from rural Mexico helped the Dodgers win their first World Series title in a generation.
He also did something else amazing.
“He made it cool to be left-handed,” says Gustavo Arellano, a Los Angeles Times Mexican heritage columnist. “In rural Mexico, they would beat you the ‘left-hander’. … After Fernando, fathers tried to make their children left-handed even if they were right-handed.
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Valenzuela’s rise to major league importance began in September 1980, when he was recalled from the minor leagues by the Dodgers. In 10 games as a relief pitcher, he has not allowed any earned runs.
The following season, when he was just 20 years old, Valenzuela energized fans in Los Angeles, Mexico and the big leagues with one of the most notable seasons in baseball history. When he launched, attendance increased dramatically at home and away. TV ratings have also increased.
Arellano, who grew up in Southern California, was a toddler during the summer of Fernandomania. But he fondly remembers the impact of Valenzuela’s special season on baseball in Los Angeles and Mexican Americans.
“He meant everything to a community that craved a hero,” says Arellano.
Los Angeles Dodgers seek “Mexican Sandy Koufax”
After the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles after the 1957 season, Los Angeles owner Walter O’Malley felt it was essential to build good relationships with local communities. But the team alienated the city’s large Latino population from the start.
To lure the Dodgers across the country, the city of Los Angeles evicted local residents from the Chavez Ravine neighborhood north of downtown, where the team planned to build a new stadium. Many of those residents were Mexican Americans, who became embittered and stuck with the Dodgers for decades.
O’Malley once wished aloud a “Mexican Sandy Koufax,” a pitcher who could capture the imaginations of fans like the Hall of Fame did. Mike Brita, a Dodgers scout since 1978, found him in Etchohuaquila, Mexico (population 857 in 2020), about 1,000 miles northwest of Mexico City. “The Dodgers were lucky,” Arellano said of Brita’s discovery.
As Fernandomania took off, Mike Littwin, then a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, visited the hometown of the launcher. “His family lived on a dirt road full of potholes,” he says. “The potholes were as big as some houses. They didn’t have a phone, so we surprised them. But they couldn’t have been sweeter.
“It was beyond imagination that Fernando could have walked out of this city. It wasn’t a dream come true because no one could have dreamed it.
“Fernandomania” sweeps through Dodger Stadium
Dodgers fans, especially Mexican Americans, were eager to see the kid for a full season. They didn’t have to wait long. On opening day, April 8, 1981, scheduled starting pitcher Jerry Reuss injured himself while warming up. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda threw Valenzuela, waking him from sleep to give him the news.
In a 2-0 win over the Houston Astros on Matchday 1, Valenzuela pitched a full game. In his next seven starts, Valenzuela completed every match, a rarity. The Dodgers won each. As of mid-May, he was 8-0 with an earned-run average of 0.50.
By this time, Fernandomania was in full swing. Dodger Stadium has become the place to be. On the days when Valenzuela pitched, the Dodgers played Mexican folk music over the sound system and cooked Mexican cuisine in the media dining room. Father and son musicians Lalo and Mark Guerrero enjoyed regional success with their song “Fernando El Toro” —Fernando The Bull.
“If they could have got a million people into Dodger Stadium, there would have been a million people there,” said actor Danny Trejo, son of Mexican-American parents. Los Angeles Times.
The Dodgers have added Spanish speaking bailiffs. Walk-in sales increased from 8,000 to 12,000 fans on Valenzuela performance nights. For road games, attendance increased from 5,000 to 10,000 for its departures. The Dodgers’ Spanish-language ratings more than doubled when he pitched. “Never seen before,” Dodgers broadcaster Jaime Jerrin told the Times.
Valenzuela’s secret weapon was a screw ball, a pitch he had learned from Dodgers pitcher Bobby Castillo 18 months earlier. He not only perfected it, but he developed three different versions of the mystical pitch, which often confused big league hitters because few pitchers used it.
Valenzuela has also had one of the most distinctive closeouts and deliveries of all time. He started with a high kick, then stopped briefly before throwing the pitch. During this moment, as the still photographs showed, Valenzuela’s eyes rolled back in her head.
Valenzuela was also unfazed, a rarity for such a young player. The first time he gave a home run to Montrealer Chris Speier, he was unfazed. His next 18 shots were catches, Dodgers wide receiver Mike Scioscia told the Times.
“His teammates were so captivated,” says Littwin, who wrote many stories related to Valenzuela in 1981. “They were blown away. I think the players were as caught up as anyone else.
Decades later, Valenzuela said his success in 1981 was straightforward. “It’s sport,” he told the Times in 2021. “But it’s entertainment for the fans. I tried to do my best so that they could have a good game, a nice day at the park.
Valenzuela wins awards as a rookie
Valenzuela, the National League starting pitcher in the all-star game as a rookie, ended the shortened 1981 season in strikes with a 13-7 loss record and 2.48 ERA, one of the best in the big leagues. He won the Rookie of the Year Award and the Cy Young Award, presented annually to the top pitcher in each league. Valenzuela was the first pitcher to accomplish both feats in the same season.
In the 1981 World Series against the New York Yankees, the Dodgers lost the first two games. But with Valenzuela starting in Game 3 at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles won, 5-4. The Dodgers won the next three games to win their first championship since 1965, when Koufax was their top pitcher.
Valenzuela had a solid career, finishing with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1997. But he never reached the heights of his rookie season. For some, his poor record of 173-153 wins makes him an unworthy Hall of Fame contender.
But Arellano, who for years thought Valenzuela didn’t deserve to be considered a Hall of Fame, thinks the opposite. “Fernando helped put the Dodgers back on track (along with the fans),” he said.
“I really think there is a home for Fernando in the Hall,” said the longtime sports reporter. “He was an extremely important person in the history of baseball.”
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