Those who got to watch it all unfold in 1981 must have thought they'd never see anything like Fernandomania ever again.
Then along came Yasiel Puig in 2013.
The Cuban slugger hasn't even been up with the Los Angeles Dodgers for two weeks, but he's already grown his legend in just about every way possible. Puig has collected hits. He's collected home runs. He's shown off a Clemente-esque arm. He even took a fastball to the face and then trotted down to first base like a [blinking] boss.
The Dodgers have another sensation on their hands, just like they did 32 years ago when Fernando Valenzuela made one of the great unknown-to-unbeatable transitions baseball has ever seen.
In times like these, well, shoot, how can we not compare Puigmania to Fernandomania?
There are differences, sure, but you may be surprised at how many similarities there are.
Rumors of Greatness to Come
There's never been a superstar who materialized out of thin air. Valenzuela and Puig sure didn't.
The general Fernandomania legend tends to convey a message that Valenzuela had never before been seen before 1981, but that's not actually the case. He pitched for the Dodgers in September of 1980, logging 10 appearances and allowing zero earned runs.
Before that, Valenzuela had put up some impressive numbers in the minor leagues. He first broke into pro ball in the States at the age of 18 in 1979, allowing only three earned runs in three starts for the Dodgers' Single-A affiliate. Before he got the call to the majors in 1980, he had posted a 3.10 ERA in 27 appearances (25 of them starts) at the Double-A level.
And even before all that, Valenzuela had been pitching in the pros down in Mexico since 1979. It's not like the Dodgers plucked him off the street, a la the not-so-great Allan Travers.
Valenzuela was thus much more of an unknown commodity than he was a nobody. That's a description that also fits Puig pretty well.
Just as Valenzuela was a star in Mexico, Puig was a star in the Cuban National Series before defecting from Cuba last June. But at the time he did, he hadn't played baseball in over a year due to disciplinary action. Ben Badler of Baseball America was among those who questioned just what the hell the Dodgers were thinking when they handed Puig a $42 million contract.
Evidently, they knew exactly what they were doing.
Puig had little trouble washing the skepticism away. He posted a 1.076 OPS in 23 minor league games last year and was one of the most explosive hitters in spring training this year. He had a 1.328 OPS during the exhibition season, and even Dodgers manager Don Mattingly couldn't help marvel at Puig's athleticism.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anybody do something like this,” Mattingly told the Los Angeles Times. “You don’t see this kind of package. This is a Bo Jackson-type package you just don’t see.”
But still there was that unknown factor. Minor league and spring training numbers are great, but they are what they are. They can tease greatness but not promise it.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports said it best when he wrote in March: "The Legend of Yasiel Puig is greater than The Truth of Yasiel Puig."
That was very much true at the time, but I'll be damned if it doesn't sound like folly now.
Explosion on Arrival
Before Valenzuela and Puig were sensations, they were lifesavers.
Fernandomania took root on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium in 1981, but it wasn't supposed to be Valenzuela on the bump for the Dodgers that day. It was supposed to be Jerry Reuss, who had finished second in the National League Cy Young voting in 1980.
Reuss couldn't go because of an injury, and Valenzuela was the guy Tommy Lasorda tabbed to fill in for him. Like that, there was a pudgy 20-year-old left-hander with exactly zero major league starts under his belt toeing the rubber for the storied Dodgers on Opening Day.
Valenzuela's first start ended up going alright. He pitched a complete game shutout against the Houston Astros, allowing only five hits with a pair of walks and five strikeouts.
Seven starts later, Valenzuela was a perfect 8-0 with a 0.50 ERA. He pitched at least nine innings in each of his first eight starts, not allowing more than two earned runs in any of them and notching five shutouts along the way.
The last pitcher to start a season with wins in his first eight starts, pitching nine innings in each one and allowing no more than two earned runs in any of them? According to Baseball-Reference.com, that was Dave Ferriss in 1945.
The number of pitchers to do it since Valenzuela? Zero.
The likelihood of us seeing such a feat accomplished ever again? Also zero.
Like Valenzuela on Opening Day in 1981, Puig was also needed in a pinch. The Dodgers called him up just a few days after they placed Matt Kemp on the disabled list, and they placed Carl Crawford on the DL the same day Puig made his debut.
But nobody was thinking about either of them when Puig took the field for the first time on June 3 against the San Diego Padres. He collected two hits and sealed the game with an unreal throw to first base from the warning track to complete a game-ending 9-1 double play.
The very next day, Puig hit his first two major league home runs. Two days later, he hit his first major league grand slam, a moment that proved to be powerful enough to render the ever-eloquent Vin Scully speechless.
The grand slam also had some historical significance, as Major League Baseball pointed out:
As ESPN Stats & Info noted when Puig won NL Player of the Week, he had done something no other Dodger had done since 1900:
Not that Puig is the first player to do anything ever, mind you. He was second to at least one other party. Here's ESPN Stats & Info again:
Puig is nine games into his career now. His batting average dipped below .500 with his 0-for-2 showing in Tuesday, but he still boasts an eye-popping slash line of .471/.500/.882 with four homers and a pair of doubles.
Has Puig's 2013 season gotten off to a more impressive start than Valenzuela's 1981 season?
That's sort of an ultimate apples-to-oranges question, and it doesn't help that eight starts for a pitcher is a larger sample size than nine games for a position player. Valenzuela proved a lot more in his first eight starts than Puig has in his first nine games.
I'd be inclined to lean towards Valenzuela, for what it's worth. Somebody is bound to come along and be as hot as hotter at the start of his career as Puig has been. Asking a pitcher to be as prolific as Valenzuela was in his first eight starts in 1981 would be like asking a pitcher to snatch the sun out of the sky and then throw it right on the outside corner. Especially in a day and age where complete games have become special occasions.
We can say this, though: It hasn't even been two weeks yet, but Puigmania is proving to be a fine match for Fernandomania.
Bigger Than the Game
When Valenzuela rose to power in 1981, there's really no overstating the impact Fernandomania had on both the Dodgers and Major League Baseball as a whole.
Jorge Martin of MLB.com recalled in 2006 that late Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley would often mention that he dreamed of having a "Mexican Sandy Koufax" on the roster so the team could tap an as-yet untapped market in Southern California. He didn't live to see Valenzuela suit up in Dodger blue, but a Mexican Sandy Koufax is exactly what he became.
Jaime Jarrín, the Dodgers' Spanish-language broadcaster, had this to say about Valenzuela's impact beyond MLB's usual borders:
I truly believe that there is no other player in Major League baseball history who created more new baseball fans than Fernando. Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Joe DiMaggio, even Babe Ruth didn't. Fernando turned so many people from Mexico, Central America, South America into fans. Fernando created interest in baseball among people who didn't care about baseball.
The increased interest certainly had an impact at the gate, and not just at Dodger Stadium.
SABR's Vic Wilson crunched the numbers and found that Valenzuela's starts at Chavez Ravine tended to draw thousands more fans. He was even more of a draw on the road, as his starts away from Dodger Stadium in 1981 and 1982 attracted an average of 13,000 more fans per game than when other Dodgers starters were on the mound.
The hype was so intense, Valenzuela even got his own song:
Puig doesn't have his own song (yet), nor has he had much of an impact on attendance. He's played all nine of his games at Dodger Stadium, but the Dodgers have drawn an average of 42,096 fans in those games compared to 43,417 fans in 29 home games before Puig arrived.
But while the numbers haven't gotten a drastic shakeup, anybody who's watched Puig play at Dodger Stadium will know that he's had a huge impact on the energy of the place.
“It’s been dead,” Scully told The New York Times about the atmosphere at Dodger Stadium before Puig arrived. “This wonderful team they assembled disappeared.”
But now that Puig is in town, Scully says things have become "different.” That was especially apparent this past Saturday when Mark Ellis was up at the plate against Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel with the Dodgers trailing 2-1 with two outs in the ninth inning. Ellis may have been the guy batting, but all eyes were on the guy in the on-deck circle: Puig.
“With each pitch to Ellis, I knew the crowd was saying, ‘Great, we’re just two pitches away from Puig.’ That’s amazing for a kid.”
The Puig effect has been felt on the merchandise front as well. As Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times reported, the Dodgers sold more Puig merchandise in a four-day span between last Thursday and this Monday than they had ever sold for any other player. Valenzuela, Clayton Kershaw, Manny Ramirez, whoever.
As for Puig's impact beyond Southern California, we can take his word for it that he has his supporters back home.
"I know I have a lot of people in Cuba yelling for me," Puig said on the day of his debut, via the Los Angeles Times.
As the Dodgers' PR department kindly pointed out, the rest of the world is watching too:
Just as Valenzuela did back in 1981, Puig has insane numbers next to his name and many sets of eyes watching his every move.
The only question now: What happens next?
It wasn't all good for Valenzuela in 1981. He posted an ERA over 6.00 in the six outings immediately after his 8-0 start, and then the strike came and locked him and everyone out for two months.
It all came to down to happy ending, however. Valenzuela finished the year with a 13-7 record and a 2.48 ERA, and he became the first player to ever win the Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young award in the same season. To top it all off, he helped lead the Dodgers to a World Series victory.
How that's for an act to follow, Mr. Puig?
Winning the Rookie of the Year is not out of the question for Puig. His numbers are going to come down eventually, but even the ever-skeptical geek community is on board with his talent. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs, for example, sees a "star in the making" when he looks at Puig.
But an MVP to match Valenzuela's Cy Young?
That's only happening if the Dodgers make a run at a playoff spot. That's not impossible seeing as how the NL West has hardly left the Dodgers in the dust, but the Dodgers will need to keep the injuries and the subpar performances at bay the rest of the way, as well as plenty more awesomeness from Puig.
Odds are nothing more spectacular than what's already gone on is going to happen. Even if Puig continues to be amazing, his feats likely won't be enough to rescue the Dodgers.
But what if? What if the shot in the arm Puig has given the Dodgers proves to be the starting point for an epic revival, one that leads to a postseason berth and, just maybe, a World Series triumph?
If it comes to that, Puigmania will have done the seemingly impossible. It will have topped Fernandomania.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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