November 25, 2014

The Return of Fernandomania

Fernandomania is the subject of the next “30 for 30″ documentary (put on by ESPN Films) and I couldn’t be more excited.

Called “Fernando Nation,” the series looks at the one and only Fernando Valenzuela.  Like many fans of the team, some of my favorite early Dodger memories revolve around Fernandomania and the excitement that the young Mexican phenom generated in my group of friends, deep in the heart of suburbia – to say nothing of Angelenos everywhere.  Fernando’s accomplishments literally transcended race; the overweight, shy, Spanish-speaking kid was someone everyone could root for.  And they did. 

Even today, when I think about what Dodger legend’s name I would put on the back of my jersey (if I had one), Valenzuela is a clear #2 (Scully is my #1).  There simply has not been a young player for the Dodgers that inspired and electrified the crowd from his first day in Dodger Blue quite like Fernando Valenzuela.

For those of you that were born after Fernandomania, here’s a quick summary of the legendary pitcher’s accomplishments (courtesy of the Dodgers PR team):

In his 10 appearances with the Dodgers in 1980, Valenzuela didn’t allow an earned run in 17 2/3 innings. He posted a 2-0 record with one save and the Dodgers finished the regular season tied for first place in the National League West.

Valenzuela was the emergency starter on Opening Day 1981 when he hurled a 2-0 shutout over Houston, one of five in his first eight starts that season. The phenomenon of “Fernandomania” ensued shortly thereafter. While leading the Dodgers to the World Championship that year, he became the first player in Major League history to be named Rookie of the Year and to win a Cy Young in the same season. Valenzuela also earned the All-Star Game start in Cleveland. He still holds the rookie record for consecutive scoreless innings (35.0), as he began his major league career with a 10-0 record and a 0.40 ERA (4ER/90.0 IP) including his late season call-up in 1980.

In 17 big league seasons, Valenzuela compiled a 173-153 record and a 3.54 ERA with Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Diego, and St. Louis. He was named to the National League All-Star team for six consecutive seasons from 1981-1986 and in 1986 he won 20 games while also earning the Rawlings Gold Glove Award.

Here’s the official summary of the film:

“‘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.” – Steve Wulf, Sports Illustrated, 1981.  So how was it that a pudgy 20-year-old, Mexican, left-handed pitcher from a remote village in the Sonoran desert, unable to speak a word of English, could sell out stadiums across America and become a rock star overnight?  In Fernando Nation, Mexican-born and Los Angeles-raised director Cruz Angeles traces the history of a community that was torn apart when Dodger Stadium was built in Chavez Ravine and then revitalized by one of the most captivating pitching phenoms baseball has ever seen.  Nicknamed “El Toro” by his fans, Fernando Valenzuela ignited a fire that spread from LA to New York—and beyond. He vaulted himself onto the prime time stage and proved with his signature look to the heavens and killer screwball that the American dream was not reserved for those born on U.S. soil.  In this layered look at the myth and the man, Cruz Angeles recalls the euphoria around Fernando’s arrival and probes a phenomenon that transcended baseball for many Mexican-Americans. Fernando Valenzuela himself opens up to share his perspective on this very special time. Three decades later, “Fernandomania” lives.

Now how does that not get you excited if you’re a baseball fan?  The Dodgers had the official premiere for the film at Dodger Stadium on Thursday evening, and the reviews are starting to come in: 

– Dodger Thoughts’ Jon Weisman offers a glimpse into his boyhood love for Fernandomania (more on the film is coming soon from Jon)

– Evan Drellich of MLB.com gives some context to Valenzuela’s accomplishments

– Roberto over at Vin Scully is My Homeboy gives the doc two thumbs up and has some photos from the premiere

When covering games at Dodger Stadium, I frequently see Fernando, now the Spanish radio analyst for the team, walking through the press box and on the field, greeting kids and community groups before games.  He’s no longer the shy ballplayer he was when he first arrived, but he continues to carry himself with the grace and class and grace that’s fitting of a Dodger legend.

I can’t wait to watch “Fernando Nation” on Tuesday night, if only to flash back to the magic he created in Chavez Ravine in 1980 and beyond.

“Fernando Nation” will air on ESPN Deportes on Sunday, October 24 at 6 p.m. PST and on ESPN on Tuesday, October 26 at 5 p.m. PST.

Photo Credit: Rick Stewart/Getty Images