In 1981, an Unknown Pitcher from Mexico Changed the Game for the Dodgers

A look back at the championship season when ”Fernandomania” swept L.A.

The guy standing on the mound at Dodger Stadium on opening day was not the guy the Dodgers wanted standing on the mound at Dodger Stadium on opening day. The home team faced pressure aplenty without having to consider an emergency starter in the very first game of the 1981 season, let alone it being a 20-year-old with all of 17 innings of big league experience under his belt, every one of them out of the bullpen.

At that point, L.A.’s pitching concerns were more akin to triage than anything resembling strategy. This was the Dodgers, for crying out loud, the closest thing to a pitching factory that baseball had known since way back in the Brooklyn days of Drysdale and Newcombe and Sandy Freaking Koufax. One might assume immunity to this sort of dilemma. Nope. Their previous game—a one-and-out playoff against Houston that closed the 1980 campaign—had hinged on just this kind of drama. Hell, it even included the same opponent currently in town to christen the new season, almost as if baseball’s schedulers wanted to help Los Angelenos clear their palates as expediently as possible. Whether that was achievable remained to be seen.

The Dodgers were already without Don Sutton, now pitching for Houston. Left-hander Jerry Reuss, coming off an All-Star campaign, was ready to slide into Sutton’s slot atop the rotation, but in the final workout before opening day pulled a calf muscle so severely that he ended up sidelined for the first ten games of the season.

Manager Tommy Lasorda would have bumped up the next guy, but Burt Hooton, thinking he had an additional day to recover, had undergone a procedure to remove an ingrown toenail and was forced to sit. Number three starter Bob Welch was tending a bone spur in his elbow that would cost him three games. Dave Goltz and third-year pitcher Rick Sutcliffe had just closed the exhibition schedule with Freeway Series starts against the Angels.

This is how Fernando Valenzuela came to be pulled aside by team brass shortly after reaching the ballpark and told that he was about to become the first rookie pitcher to start on opening day in the 98-year history of the franchise.

Valenzuela was a physical curiosity, with chubby cheeks and rotund belly, his Mayan features accentuated by bushy black hair spilling straight down from his cap. Wrote Jim Murray in the following day’s Los Angeles Times: “He is, how shall we say it—he is—well, he’s fat, is what he is.” Fernando did not disappoint. In a performance that belied his carriage, the left-hander tantalized the Astros inning after inning, giving up assorted singles and not much else. By the time he struck out Dave Roberts in the ninth—with a screwball of all things—Valenzuela had thrown 106 pitches, and also a complete-game, five-hit, 2–0 shutout. The 50,511 fans crowding Dodger Stadium could hardly believe what they’d seen. A day earlier the pitcher had been so in the dark about the possibility of drawing this assignment that he threw batting practice. Now he spun gold. Fernando, too young to legally buy a beer, was seemingly beyond distraction.

“We don’t know what’s going on inside him,” marveled Dodgers second baseman Davey Lopes after the game, an understandable sentiment given his new teammate’s language barrier. “All he does is smile.”

“He wasn’t one bit nervous,” catcher Mike Scioscia informed the press. “He’s so cool out there, I don’t think he even broke a sweat.”

fernando valenzuela dodgers 1981
Rob Brown/Herald Examiner Collection | Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The thing about Valenzuela wasn’t that he was an unknown pitcher making his first major league start on the early season’s biggest stage. It wasn’t that he spoke virtually no English, necessitating Spanish-language broadcaster Jaime Jarrín to translate for him at nearly every turn. It wasn’t that as a kid from the dusty plains of Mexico he had not yet adapted to life in Los Angeles. It was not his pudgy cheeks, or his stomach bulging over his belt, or the unique hitch in his delivery in which, with his lead leg lifted, he gazed skyward while clasping his hands above his head. It was not his habit of constantly blowing chewing-gum bubbles, sometimes in the middle of his windup. It was not that he was a 20-year-old who looked to be in his middle thirties. It was not even that he was left-handed, or that his out-pitch was a flippin’ screwball.

It was all of it together, a full package containing mystery (The guy barely talks!), comedy (That belly! That haircut! That form!) and straight-up befuddlement (How does he do nothing but win?). Baseball had seen its share of flashing mound talent over recent years—Mark Fidrych in 1976, Vida Blue in ’71—but nobody quite captured the collective imagination like Fernando. The guy had been so anonymous that in a baseball card industry recently flush with competition, only Fleer saw fit to include him in its 1981 set…and misspelled his name.

Valenzuela seemed imperturbable—Pedazo de pastel, he said when asked how he felt about starting the season opener, Piece of cake—so composed through what should have been a fraught-filled start that the Los Angeles Times was compelled to report that “if he had been 100 years old and in the majors for 90 of them, he couldn’t have looked more in control.”

As if limiting Houston to five hits wasn’t enough, two of them came off of broken bats, and a third didn’t breach the infield. Said Fernando with such unassuming ease that it was impossible to confuse the sentiment for bravado: “When I get on the mound I don’t know what afraid is.”

“Hell,” shrugged outfielder Jay Johnstone, looking back, “you’ve got to break him in somewhere.”

To that point, Dodgers players didn’t know what to make of the youngster. They’d spent most of spring training watching Valenzuela get knocked around by their own hitters during batting practice at Vero Beach, but in retrospect it became clear what he’d been trying to do. “Fernando threw the best BP,” reflected Derrel Thomas. “He could make a bad hitter look good, that’s how great a batting practice he threw. It was right there, all the time.” So hard was the left-hander getting hammered that some of the team’s Latino hitters began teasing him about the distance of the shots he was giving up. “No,” Valenzuela responded in Spanish from the mound, “I let you do that.” Challenge accepted. Lasorda, who’d been listening in, immediately gathered three of his top-line guys—Reggie Smith, Dusty Baker, and Pedro Guerrero—to do their damnedest in the batting cage, then ordered Valenzuela to let loose. Three pitches and Smith was done. Three more pitches, and so was Baker. Likewise, Guerrero. Heads immediately swiveled toward Lasorda. “OK,” he shrugged. Point proved.

*By the time Valenzuela’s second regular-season start came around, the Dodgers were 4-0, having swept Houston and taken the opener of a three-game set in San Francisco. It would be, pundits suggested, a different kind of test for the rookie. Fernando would be leaving balmy Los Angeles for windy, frigid Candlestick Park, while pitching in front of the most fervently anti-Dodger crowd in the big leagues. The day before the game, the ballpark wind chill dropped to near 40 degrees, with gusts so strong that the grounds crew had to secure the center-field fence lest it blow over.

Valenzuela tossed a four-hitter with 10 strikeouts. He did give up a run in the eighth inning—the first of his big league career—leading to his first on-the-record admission (“The cold weather, it made me a little stiff toward the end”) that he might be human after all. Catcher Steve Yeager said afterward that Valenzuela could have gone another nine had he so chosen.

The Dodgers would win again the next day to sweep the series and go 6-0. After an off-day and an extra-innings loss to San Diego, Fernando headed back to the hill in wet weather, on three days’ rest for the first time in his career, and delivered his second complete-game, five-hit shutout in three tries, walking no Padres and striking out 10. Gene Richards’s leadoff single? No problem. When Ozzie Smith tried to bunt Richards over, Valenzuela coolly fielded the ball and rifled a strike to Russell at second to force the runner. A moment later, the lefty picked Smith off of first. By that point, said GM Campanis, he was “catching hell for not bringing him up earlier.”

On Valenzuela’s fourth turn, the Dodgers were 9-2 and the country was paying attention. It was pegged as another hurdle for the young pitcher, the first time a team—the Astros—would get a second look at him. It was one thing to beat the woeful Giants and Padres, but Houston was the defending division champ and would be playing at home, marking Fernando’s first appearance indoors, not to mention his second straight start on three days’ rest. No phenom could be this phenomenal.

Could he?

Another complete-game shutout had even the doubters convinced. Tossing a seven-hitter with 11 strikeouts was one thing, but doing so in a 1–0 victory proved Valenzuela’s mettle in new ways. Houston’s leadoff hitter, Terry Puhl, opened the game by smacking a double into the right-field corner. When the next batter, Craig Reynolds, tried to bunt Puhl over, Valenzuela, unperturbed, fielded the ball in front of the mound and, upon spying the runner too wide of second, ran him down and tagged him out himself, then instinctively wheeled and threw the ball to first, nearly catching Reynolds off the bag. Moments later, Valenzuela did catch Reynolds off the bag, picking him off cleanly, but in the ensuing rundown Steve Garvey hit Reynolds in the back with his throw. Houston eventually put runners on second and third, at which point Valenzuela struck out José Cruz and Mike Ivie to end the inning. There seemed to be no limit to his baseball sense.

As if to answer anybody who wasn’t yet ready to acknowledge him as Superman, Fernando also drove in the game’s only run as part of a two-for-three day that brought his season batting average to .333. “There was no one moment when I realized he was for real,” reflected Dave Stewart about the pitcher’s magical start. “With Fernando, it was every moment. Every game he would show you something. He could make the opposition look absolutely useless.” Valenzuela was 4-0 with four complete games in four starts, including three shutouts and 36 strikeouts over 36 innings. His ERA was 0.25. He led all of baseball in wins, strikeouts, innings pitched, and shutouts. Wrote the Los Angeles Times: “After his first single, he got a standing ovation, and first-base coach Manny Mota told him to tip his cap. It was the first thing anyone has had to tell Valenzuela all season.” There was no way things could get any better. And then they did.

Fernando’s fifth start, at home against the Giants, was another complete-game shutout, because of course it was, this one a seven-hitter with what even the pitcher acknowledged was not his best stuff. In the process, he dropped his ERA to 0.20 while raising his batting average to .438, thanks to a 3-for-4 day at the plate. Los Angeles was 14-3 and led the National League West by four and a half games, a ridiculous margin so early in the season. By that point people weren’t just paying attention, they were urgently scrambling to board Fernando’s contrail. T-shirts and buttons featuring the pitcher’s name and image cropped up across the Southland. Songs of devotion were recorded. Tickets for his future starts, home and road, were snapped up at premium prices. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner ran a contest to find the pitcher a nickname. (The closest one came to sticking was El Toro—The Bull.) Sports Illustrated ordered a feature story, as did Inside Sports. Reporters appeared in the clubhouse in such overwhelming numbers that the Dodgers took to staging pregame press conferences as a means of clearing out some space for the rest of the roster. Someone even came up with a name for the whole, wild affair: Fernandomania. Valenzuela was five starts into his big league career.

“He seems to think there’s a better league somewhere else,” said Lasorda, “and he’s trying to pitch himself out of here.”

Chavez Ravine was once considered such undesirable real estate that for a time in the 1800s the city of Los Angeles used it to isolate smallpox patients. The place was only a mile northeast of downtown, but it might as well have been on the other side of the planet for the lack of interest shown by local developers.

The rugged hills surrounding the area’s gorges and gullies kept the land available for generations of Mexican immigrants looking for a place to settle. Their numbers exploded following the revolution in their country in 1910, and again in 1913, when the city chose the spot to relocate about 250 families from the floodplain of the Los Angeles River. The influx led to the emergence of three barrios, called La Loma, Palo Verde, and Bishop, each nestled in its own ravine. A patchwork array of houses, hundreds strong, dotted the hillside, serviced by neither streetlights nor a unified sewage system. Only some of the roads were paved. About a quarter of the homes were built to modern standards, but many were effectively lean-tos, slabs of board or tin propped atop patchwork frames. According to a 1949 survey, one-third of the area’s houses had no toilets and a significant percentage were without running water. Nearly 4,000 people lived in those hills.

The canyons, dotted naturally by meadows and wildflowers, came to bear an array of family orchards and gardens. Goats, chickens, and pigs wandered the hills, munching slopeside grass. The Palo Verde Street School provided American-style elementary education for area kids, while the Paducah Street School was geared more toward domestic skills like gardening. The community’s center was the Santo Nino Church. For many residents, life in the ravines was as good as they could have hoped. It was both available and affordable. It also wouldn’t last.

In late 1949, Los Angeles mayor Fletcher Bowron enlisted federal help to design and build 10,000 units of public housing in Chavez Ravine. That the land was already inhabited bore little consequence to city fathers; much of the extant development failed to meet civic standards (a Department of Health report called it “the worst slum in the city,” despite the area possessing little of the blight typical of urban tenements), and besides, new construction would be easier there than in more populated regions of greater L.A. So an offer was extended to area homeowners: sell your property to the city housing authority and receive, in addition to fair market value, first crack at a spot in the soon-to-be-constructed apartment buildings, named Elysium Park Heights, after the surrounding parkland.

The clear-eyed among the residents saw the offer for what it was: an eviction notice with the chance to recoup at least something in exchange. The barrios were bound for demolition, that much was certain, and unsurrendered land would be seized via eminent domain. Cashing in was strictly optional.

The planned housing would accommodate up to 17,000 residents, a massive population increase. At the city’s instruction, architects Robert Alexander and Richard Neutra designed 13 high-rise towers, a number far exceeding what either man thought appropriate. Amenities in the blueprint included space for preschools and three churches, as well as a shopping center and a 1,500-seat auditorium.

When the housing authority began to purchase property in earnest in December 1950, a number of residents jumped aboard. With many offers failing to reach even five figures, however, sale prices did not come close to enabling the purchase of equivalent property elsewhere in Los Angeles. Some holdout residents were scared into selling by rampant rumors that the city would set fire to unevacuated dwellings, or that the police would arrest those who lingered too long.

As it turned out, those who lingered too long ended up making the most noise. A steadfast band of resisters refused to relinquish their homes, even in the face of increasing governmental pressure—pressure that, in 1953, came to include a new foe. Mayor Bowron was facing a reelection fight against conservative candidate Norris Poulson, whose campaign encouraged the red scare prevailing in American politics at the time. Poulson’s platform decried the socialist nature of subsidized housing, a stance buffeted by local real estate developers, who by that point saw the abundance of available acreage so close to downtown as a potential gold mine. They even banded together, with Poulson joining the Los Angeles Times, the Chamber of Commerce, and a local home-building coalition to form a group called CASH—Citizens Against Socialist Housing. Spurred by donations from the construction sector, the city council repudiated its earlier authorization for the construction of Elysium Park Heights, mostly under the auspices of a gathering Communist threat. Councilman Harold Harby denounced public housing as a “creeping cancer” that would lead to “social decay.”

Bowron vetoed the council’s plan, insisting that the specter of returning some $13 million in federal development grants that had already been accepted for the Elysium Park Heights project would put the city at risk. Trying to placate the opposition, he negotiated a reduction in scope, from 10,000 units to 7,000. Faced with two choices widely seen as unpalatable—condense the plan or scrap it entirely and refund the government’s money—the population went for a third option: they voted Bowron out of office, in favor of Paulson. Among the new mayor’s first acts was scuttling the proposed development.

That left the city with a bunch of mostly empty acreage and not a lot to do with it. Though the land had been earmarked for public use, the definition of that term changed markedly over time, especially once Walter O’Malley decided to move his baseball team out of Brooklyn and sought someplace in Los Angeles to plant his flag.

The Dodgers knew exactly what they were missing. Apart from Mexico City, Los Angeles boasted a higher concentration of Mexicans than anyplace in the world, who by 1981 represented 2 million out of 7.5 million people in L.A. County. The potential for a Hispanic fan bloc was overwhelming, if only it could be reached. Doing so was not easy.

The Dodgers had been scouting south of the border since 1950, during which time they’d fielded a variety of Mexican players, none of whom inspired the masses. There was Vicente Romo, a pitcher out of Santa Rosalia, snatched from Cleveland’s minor league system in the 1967 Rule 5 draft. He pitched one inning for L.A. before being returned to the Indians.

There was pitcher José Peña, from Chihuahua, acquired in a 1970 trade, who won six games over three seasons and was released. Catcher Sergio Robles was signed out of the Mexican League, went hitless in three at-bats with the Dodgers, and promptly returned home.

When Mexican nationals failed to turn the trick, the Dodgers tabbed players like pinch-hitter extraordinaire Manny Mota, who was Dominican but at least spoke Spanish. The closest they came to their original plan was Bobby Castillo, the guy who taught Valenzuela his screwball. Castillo had Mexican heritage, but grew up in East Los Angeles and spoke only English. Mexican fans continued to stay away.

fernando valenzuela
Paul Chinn/Herald Examiner Collection | Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Not that it hurt the bottom line. The Dodgers consistently led baseball in attendance, in 1978 becoming the first team to draw more than 3 million fans. Still, Al Campanis never stopped ordering his scouts to try to dig up a Mexican Sandy Koufax, somebody to activate Latinos the way that the Hall of Fame left-hander had activated Jews.

By the time Valenzuela’s record hit 5-0 in 1981, it was safe to say that Latinos throughout the Southland were activated. So, for that matter, was everybody else. Vendors began to crop up on the streets leading to Dodger Stadium, hawking all manner of Valenzuela-related fare, from souvenir T-shirts to buttons bearing slogans like “I Live in the San Fernando Valley.” The team’s switchboard was inundated with ticket requests for the lefty’s upcoming starts, and rumors swirled about John Belushi playing him in a biopic. The pitcher would soon sign a deal to put his image on posters, and by the end of the season he had endorsed everything from flashlights to fruit juice to Mexican banks.

“The fan demographics of Dodger Stadium changed in a month,” said reporter Peter Schmuck. “It was stunning to pull your car into the parking lot and drive by mariachi bands. Sure, Mexican Americans came to games, but not like that. It was so much fun, just a wonderful, unbelievable circus.”

“The best part about it is that it was completely spontaneous and real,” said Lyle Spencer, who covered the team for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. “There was nothing fabricated about it. Fernandomania wasn’t a creation of some PR department—it just happened.”

Newspapers and magazines sent waves of reporters to Etchohuaquila for endless features that repeated the same details again and again. New attention was paid to long-expired stars like Dizzy Dean (the last National League pitcher to win 30 games), Rube Marquard (the guy with the best start to a season in big league history, at 19-0), and Jack Chesbro (the last 40-game winner). Dean turned his trick in 1930, Marquard in 1912, and Chesbro all the way back in 1904. To say that Valenzuela’s start was being viewed in anything but historic terms is to sell short the national obsession with the pitcher. Even long-forgotten hurlers like Hooks Wiltse and Atley Donald drew notice, owing to their sharing the rookie record with 12 consecutive wins, for the 1904 Giants and 1939 Yankees, respectively. Writers took to referencing a pitcher named Boo Ferriss, who upon being called up to Boston in 1945 completed his first 11 starts, including four shutouts and one 14-inning affair, with a relief appearance in between in which he earned the save. After Ferriss’s first five starts, he was 5-0 with three shutouts and a 0.60 ERA. After Valenzuela’s first five starts, he was 5-0 with three shutouts and a 0.20 ERA. Even better than the best ever, said Los Angelenos unconcerned with hyperbole.

The Dodgers did their best to foster a sense of order within the clubhouse. Rather than subject Fernando to unrelenting pregame attention, they arranged for a one-stop press conference in Houston to slake the media’s thirst—and then expanded the policy to each city they visited thereafter. So as to avoid resentment among the rest of the staff, Lasorda offered press conferences to his other starters too. (They rejected the idea outright, unanimous in the opinion that more attention slathered upon Valenzuela meant more freedom from the press for themselves.)

The pitcher built camaraderie in his own low-key way, crafting lariats out of twine, which he’d use to lasso the feet of unsuspecting teammates as they walked past in the dugout. He’d perpetually tap players on the shoulder from behind, then disappear in the opposite direction. He juggled a hacky sack during pregame warm-ups for what seemed like hours on end. “He looked like a man, but he acted like a kid,” recalled Dusty Baker, who, given his ability to speak Spanish, was one of Valenzuela’s primary conduits to the team.

Finally, during Fernando’s sixth start, things fell apart…relatively speaking. Playing in Montreal—north of the U.S. border, rather than the familiar south—Valenzuela had to be removed from a game for the first time as a big leaguer. Still, he pitched a full nine innings (the game went extras) and limited the Expos to one run on five hits with no walks while striking out seven. It took the opposition six innings to get a ball out of the infield. In the process, Fernando ran his record to 6-0 when the Dodgers scored five times in the 10th for a 6–1 victory, minutes after the pitcher was removed for a pinch-hitter in the top half of the frame. “We scored a run off him,” enthused Expos catcher Gary Carter in the postgame clubhouse, seizing upon whatever positives he could. It was the second run Valenzuela had yielded as a big leaguer, and the first that meant anything. Back home, 59 percent of televisions tuned in to the game.

The whirlwind got truly whirly at Fernando’s next stop, in New York. It was unusual from the start, given that the Dodgers were still in Philadelphia when he arrived, but Valenzuela was scheduled to pitch the series opener at Shea Stadium, so the team sent him ahead a day early to meet the press. Wearing a brown leather jacket and slacks, Fernando uneasily stared down an interview room flooded with some 100 media members, as well as Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, serving as special envoy from the commissioner’s office, and Mets catcher Alex Treviño, in the starting lineup for that night’s game against the Giants, who, being from Monterrey, Mexico, did not want to miss it.

Valenzuela, a guy who didn’t much like speaking even in general terms, found himself fending off increasingly pointed questions for more than an hour, fielding query after query about things like the labor discord that was making a strike look more likely by the day. “New York writers are so mean, and they tried to trap him in something,” recalled Valenzuela’s translator, broadcaster Jaime Jarrín. “Fernando didn’t know anything about the strike. They said, ‘How is it that you’re so unaware of what’s happening?’ He said, ‘I know how to pitch, that’s it.’”

The rest of the Dodgers showed up at Shea Stadium a day later to face the Mets in front of 39,848 fans—not bad for a team that averaged 11,300—plus noted sports artist LeRoy Neiman, who appeared before the game to sketch Valenzuela’s portrait. As the pitcher attempted to put on his uniform, he was jostled by two photographers and an ESPN cameraman, part of a media contingent swelled to twice its usual size. When Fernando took the field for batting practice, he was followed down the runway by a bona-fide horde. “I felt like I was following the heavyweight champion, with all the media people and the handlers walking down to the field,” recalled reporter Chris Mortensen. Upon returning to his locker after warm-ups, Valenzuela was forced to fend off five photographers, enough for Lasorda to chase the entire assemblage out of the clubhouse and lock the door, which was ordinarily open until first pitch.

The attention might have had something to do with the worst start of Fernando’s career, the left-hander giving up four hits and four walks over the first three innings—and still he threw a complete-game shutout. He did this by getting Dave Kingman to ground into a bases-loaded double-play to end the first, striking out Bob Bailor with the bases loaded to end the second, and inducing a comebacker from Treviño with two men on in the third. The lefty settled down after that, holding the Mets to three harmless singles over the final six frames while whiffing 11 over the course of 142 pitches. He also gave away his inexperience when, with nobody on base in the middle innings, he caught sight of one of the jets that frequently buzzed Shea Stadium when taking off from nearby LaGuardia Airport. Entranced, the pitcher simply dropped his leg, held the ball, and watched in awe as it passed overhead.

At Valenzuela’s postgame press conference, somebody asked whether he thought he could go his entire career undefeated. “Es muy dificil,” he said quietly. It’s very difficult. After his next two starts, Valenzuela would be 8-0 with seven complete games, five shutouts and a 0.50 ERA. That, though, was still to come. After a brief pause, he finished the sentence: “Pero no es imposible.” But it’s not impossible. The way Fernando was going, the point had to be considered.

Excerpted from THEY BLED BLUE: Fernandomania, Strike-Season Mayhem, and the Weirdest Championship Baseball Had Ever Seen: The 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers by Jason Turbow. Copyright © 2019 by Jason Turbow. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Author Jason Turbow will discuss and sign copies of They Bled Blue on Tuesday, June 4, at 6:30 pm. at Diesel, a Bookstore, 225 26th St., Santa Monica.

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