Living in Las Vegas in the early eighties meant you were in some sort of baseball hell, seemingly destined to never see a live baseball game again.
But we did have the radio and the voice of baseball’s greatest announcer loud and clear as the 1981 season approached. Vin Scully.
As a Dodger fan, that was all you ever really needed. In fact listening to Scully was better than television. You could almost see the sunset and the action as he called the games from beautiful Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine.
But something was different in 1981. It seemed the Dodgers had this young phenom named Fernando Valenzuela. He was just a kid from Mexico. Tall, with a mop of black hair, and a little bit of a gut on him. But oh, could he pitch, and pitch.
In baseball lore, 1981 is the year of Fernandomania. People showed up in droves to see this youngster battle against the best hitters of the day. Looking high to the sky, his delivery was considered unorthodox, but manager Tommy Lasorda didn’t care. All he cared about were wins, and Fernando was happy to oblige.
I listened as Scully described what truly became one of the great stretches of pitching in modern baseball history.
Eight straight wins to open the season.
Five shutouts and an ERA of 0.50 during that run.
It was a good thing Fernando was able to throw an unhittable screwball because the Dodger offense was at times pretty anemic and often a shutout might only get them a tie.
But there are a couple of things often missed in discussions of Fernando.
Not only was he a great pitcher, he could hit. Often times late in the game he would enter as a pinch hitter, compiling a lifetime .200 average that included 10 home runs.
Not bad for a pitcher in the 80s.
And he was a workhorse. In his first seven years with the Dodgers, he averaged almost 8 innings a start and completed a remarkable 96 games.
Fernando was a throwback. A throwback to an era when players worked hard, didn’t complain, and just played. The Bull, as Lasorda oftentimes called him, just wanted the ball, and figured if he was pitching, it was his job not only to win, but to complete the game as well.
In today’s era of specialty pitchers and quality starts lasting six innings, I wonder if we will ever see a pitcher like Fernando again. Or if maybe when He was finished, God just broke the mold.