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Fernando Valenzuela's Incredible Rookie Year

Few people have begun their athletic careers as impressively as Fernando Valenzuela. In 1981, the rookie from Mexico took Los Angeles and the rest of the baseball world by storm. Incredibly, the precocious pitcher won both the National League's Rookie of the Year Award and the Cy Young Award, a rare feat that has yet to be duplicated. Let's take a look back at that memorable year.


The Dodgers were in a pickle. When Dodger Stadium was first constructed, it was done so on top of a once-vibrant hispanic community. People were literally dragged out of their homes while the state of California exercised its eminent domain. As a result, very few hispanics went to Dodgers games for their first two decades in the state.

Owner Walter O'Malley always aspired to sign the Latino equivalent of Sandy Koufax, yearning to tap into that market and to make peace with that community. But alas, he never lived to see the dream come to fruition. On July 6, 1979, the Dodgers signed Fernando Valenzuela and a month later Walter O'Malley passed away.

The young pitcher from Etchohuaquila, Mexico rose quickly through the ranks as a prospect. After posting a 1.13 ERA in three starts for the Lodi Dodgers, the club had pitcher Bobby Castillo teach Fernando the finer points of the screwball to add to his repertoire. He played for the AA San Antonio Dodgers in 1980 where he led the Texas League with 162 strikeouts, impressing the big club enough for a late season call-up.

He arrived just in time for one of the great pennant races of the modern era. With the Dodgers locked in a season-long battle with the Houston Astros for the NL West title, they needed all the help that they could get. In 10 appearances, Fernando Valenzuela posted 16 strikeouts while the Dodgers ultimately lost to the Astros in a one game playoff. Although the season ended poorly and the Dodgers had yet to realize, they had found their new Koufax.

A Special Season

On the eve of the new season, the Dodgers found themselves in a bind. With projected Opening Day starter Jerry Reuss hurt the day before and Day Two starter Burt Hooton not quite ready, the job fell on the broad shoulders of Fernando Valenzuela. In front of more than 50,000 at Dodger Stadium on April 9, 1981, Fernando proved up to the task. In nine innings of work, he gave up eight hits and two walks while striking out five in the 2-0 victory over the defending NL West champion Astros. Fans were immediately entranced by his odd set up, the way that his eyes shot skyward just before he began the slow, yet inevitable dance to another strikeout. Who was this mysterious man?

Five days later, he allowed four hits against the Giants. By the eighth inning, it looked like he would begin his career with two consecutive shutouts but Enos Cabell had another idea, driving in Larry Herndon on a single. While the Dodgers still led 4-1 and would go on to beat their biggest rivals 7-1, that single run halted what could have been an even more historic start.

His next start was in San Diego where he continued his shutout ways, striking out 10 Padres in the process. He topped that five days later in a 1-0 win over the Astro's, striking out 11 in nine innings and driving in the game's only run in the bottom of the fourth. He righted a wrong against the Giants, earning the shutout that had eluded him just a couple of weeks earlier while striking out seven.

Against Montreal, the Dodgers battled to a 1-1 tie to end the ninth. Weary from nine innings of work, Fernando was replaced by relief pitcher Steve Howe closed the game in the 10th as the Dodgers scored five unanswered runs to pull away with the closer-than-the-score-indicated victory.

Valenzuela next gutted through a nine inning, seven hit, 11 strikeout 1-0 win over the Mets and then turned around to produce two hits , give up three and strikeout seven in a 3-2 win over the Expos.

The following game against the Phillies was Fernando's first true stinker as a major leaguer. Mike Schmidt's first inning homer kicked off the route. While Valenzuela only allowed three hits, he also allowed four runs in the Dodgers' 4-0 shutout loss. While the Dodgers won the next time Fernando was on the mound, he was much worse than his previous start, allowing eight hits and four earned runs, walking six and striking out just three in the 9-6 victory over the Reds.

His next game was an absolute disaster. Between the fourth and fifth innings, Valenzuela gave up nine runs to the Braves as his teammates couldn't keep up with the barrage, losing 9-4. What's worse, he only struck out two in the disaster.

Fernando bounced back in style in his next time on the mound, striking out 11 in a 5-2 win over the Braves. Behind the scenes, strange rumblings were happening in the hierarchy of the major leagues. With a players strike looming, Fernando lost his last two starts before taking two months off while the owners and players negotiated the finer opints of free agency. But there was a silver lining. In his last game before the strike, Fernando struck out nine and allowed just three hits while George Hendrick's two-run homer in the first inning provided the Cardinals all the cushion that they would need to win by a single run.

Fernando Valenzuela's last start before the strike was on June 11th. His next start was on August 11th, exactly two months between. Like many of his peers, he was rusty after having so much time off and in his first start he walked four, allowed three earned runs and struck out just three in a 7-6 loss to the Reds, with a paltry 2.60 ERA.

While he did allow three home runs, Fernando was much better in his next start, striking out nine Braves as the Dodgers escaped with a 6-5 nail-biting victory. With 12 strikeouts against the Cardinals (W, 3-2) and 10 strikeouts against the Cubs (W, 6-0) in his next two games, it was clear that Fernandomania was back in full force. Once again, crowds flocked to Dodger Stadium just to see the youngster that seemed to drop straight out of Baseball Heaven.

While Fernando kept on winning, ticket sales within the hispanic community continued to skyrocket for the Dodgers. Before he became a full-time major leaguer, crowds at Dodger Stadium typically hovered around 8% for Mexican-Americans. When he really started to show his stuff, that number rose to. a staggering 30%.

As Fernando's start continued to rise, Los Angeles came closer together than it ever had before. Fernandomania didn't just propel his team to victory, it rallied one of America's great media markets together in such a way that baseball healed quicker than it probably would have.

Although he ended the regular season on a sour note (a 1-0 loss to the Pirates), baseball had seen enough to hand Fernando both the NL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards. At just 20 years of age, he was the youngest to ever win the esteemed award. Clearly, the Baseball Writers' Association of America noticed his 13-7 record, 53 earned runs, 140 hits, 61 walks, 180 strikeouts, 11 home runs and 2.89 ERA in 192 innings. It was a rare achievement that has yet to be duplicated.

Although he lost his first start in the playoffs, a 3-1 defeat to Nolan Ryan and the Houston Astros, he only allowed one run through eight innings. It was Dave Stewart who allowed the final two runs in what was an otherwise excellent day for the young pitcher.

Fernando found redemption three games later. In nine innings of work, he allowed just four hits and one run in the 2-1 clincher over the Astros. the NLCS was much the same for Valenzuela as he lost to the Expos 3-0 in Game 2, only to beat the Expos 2-1 in the Game 5 clincher. With victory in hand, the Dodgers were going to the World Series.

The Fall Classic began in whirlwind fashion for Los Angeles, as they lost the first two games to the Yankees. Faced with falling behind by an insurmountable 3-0 deficit, Fernandomania came alive in Game 3. The Dodgers Ron Cey hit a three-run homer in the first inning to give L.A. the early lead.

But the outstanding rookie fizzled over the next two innings. After Bob Watson bashed a homer over Fernando's head, Larry Milbourne blooped a single that drove in Rick Cerone. In the third inning, Cerone continued his brilliance behind the plate by crushing a a two-run homer. After that, Fernando calmed down while his teammates rallied for the 5-4 win.

After Fernando won Game 3, the Dodger came back in a flurry to defeat the Yankees in six games, winning their first World Series since 1965. All in all, it was one memorable year for Fernando Valenzuela, the Dodgers organization and the City of Angels, bringing the organization and city together in a way that it desperately needed, at a time most critical.

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