No. 5 top Latino hurler: Fernando Valenzuela
'Fernandomania' took Dodgers, baseball by storm in early 1980s
In a salute to Hispanic Heritage Month, MLB.com posed the following question to some of the most respected authorities on baseball -- men and women who have deep knowledge of Latinos in baseball: Who were the top Latino pitchers in the history of the game? Only retired players could be considered. Based on a compilation of experts' rankings, here is a look at who finished No. 5.
The extraordinary legacy of Fernando Valenzuela isn't only etched in the rustic northwestern hills of Etchohuaquila, Mexico, but also in the hearts and minds of every baseball fan who followed his career.
Valenzuela was an untested talent when he traveled north to the "City of Angels," but he was truly destined for stardom.
And the rotund left-hander was a star -- almost from the start.
On Sept. 15, 1980, Valenzuela made his Major League debut at the improbable age of 19. Although his star didn't shine on the baseball world until the following season, "Fernandomania" would soon become the talk of baseball.
BEST FIVE LATINO PITCHERS
|Overview||Best of the best?|
|No. 5||Fernando Valenzuela|
|No. 4||Dennis Martinez|
|No. 3||Luis Tiant|
|No. 2||Pedro Martinez|
|No. 1||Juan Marichal|
He started his rookie season 8-0, a record that included five shutouts and seven complete games. One of those victories was on Opening Day, when he shut out the Houston Astros.
Valenzuela's memorable first win, less than two years after he made his professional debut in the California League, would be reminiscent of another baseball star. His name was Babe Ruth, and in 1914, a then-19-year-old left-handed pitcher also traveled north to play in his first professional game -- as a visiting player in Toronto.
As folklore would have it, Ruth delivered an impressive win -- a shutout that also included a monstrous home run, the first of many that would define his Hall of Fame career.
Valenzuela, however, was no Babe Ruth, although Valenzuela's physical attributes were eerily "Ruthian" and his influence and accomplishments were, in some ways, just as large.
Luis Rodriguez-Mayoral, a respected baseball historian, attests to Valenzuela's impact on baseball and the Dodgers faithful.
|Peter Bjarkman: Bjarkman, a freelance author, has been a leading expert on baseball in Cuba and other Latin American countries.|
|Adrian Burgos: Burgos, a history professor at Illinois, was one of 12 members of a Hall of Fame committee that led to the induction of 17 black and Latino players and administrators in 2006.|
|Dick Clark: Author, historian, SABR member and a member of the 2006 Hall of Fame panel.|
|Raymond Doswell: Curator for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Doswell has done extensive research on baseball in America and in Latin America and was part of the Hall of Fame panel in 2006.|
|Leslie Heaphy: A history professor at Kent State, Heaphy has written extensively on the history of baseball, particularly on the Negro Leagues and on women in baseball. She was also on the 2006 Hall of Fame panel.|
|Bob Kendrick: President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Kendrick has lectured broadly about black baseball and its role in civil rights.|
|Larry Lester: One of the founders of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was another member of the 2002 Hall of Fame panel.|
|John Thorn: Thorn is the official historian of MLB. He founded Total Sports Publishing and was its publisher from 1998-2002 and was a consultant for Ken Burns' documentary, "Baseball."|
|James A. Riley: Author of Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues (seminal work in this area) and authority on black baseball.|
|Luis Rodriguez-Mayoral: A one-time front-office executive with the Rangers and the Tigers, Rodriguez-Mayoral has written and lectured extensively and he has ties to the Clemente family that go back to 1961.|
"To me, showing up on the MLB level, he gave millions of Mexicans and Spanish-speaking fans throughout the country someone to truly identify with," said Mayoral, who from 1992-2001 worked closely with ballplayers as a Latino liaison for the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers.
"His body was similar to Babe Ruth, and the fact that he looked up to the skies before every pitch, the media took advantage of that. The media truly put out for the fans' consumption a lovable baseball product."
Mayoral recalled an interview he had with Valenzuela in Los Angeles during the 1983 season.
"He told me one of the things he wanted to do when he earned enough money was to buy a home for his family," Mayoral said. "He grew up in a choza, a Mexican hut. There was a dirt floor, and purchasing a home was his dream."
By 1983, Valenzuela was well on his way to that dream. He had had a magical year during his first full season in the bigs. In 1981, he won a multitude of awards -- the National League Cy Young Award, the NL Rookie of the Year Award, the NL Silver Slugger Award and, yes, even a World Series ring after he helped the Dodgers beat their hated rivals, the New York Yankees.
That was the beginning of his celebrated career, which included 173 wins, 113 complete games and six All-Star selections. From 1981-86, he went 97-68 with a 2.97 ERA, winning a career-high 21 games in '86. He was third in NL Cy Young Award voting in 1982, fifth in '85 and second in '86.
The honors he received demonstrated there was more substance to Valenzuela than just his celebrity.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, he spoke little to no English, so manager Tommy Lasorda and Jaime Jarrin, who broadcast Dodgers games in Spanish, helped Valenzuela adjust to the language and customs.
But nothing was lost in translation when he took the mound, said Manny Mota, a longtime Dodger who was indispensable to Valenzuela during his formative years.
"We simply tried to make it a little easier and give him support so that he was comfortable," said Mota, now in his 32nd consecutive year as a Dodgers coach.
To Mota, Valenzuela's humbleness, fortitude and heart defined the pitcher. But there was also something else Mota and millions of others haven't forgotten about Valenzuela: his signature pitch.
"In reality, it was the screwball," Mota said. "He wasn't a power pitcher, but it was the combination of his other pitches that made him so dominant."
That dominance fueled Fernandomania. It captured the fancy of the fans, people who not only watched intently from the bleachers or the box seats but who stood up enthusiastically to cheer for a Mexican star, a star whose unconventional style delivered magic -- night after night.
He took every one of his idiosyncrasies to the pitcher's mound and brought an unconventional windup and pitch to the grand stage. He also brought his perseverance, his athleticism and his self-confidence along for the ride. In seeing film of his corkscrew-like windup, as Valenzuela jerks and looks toward the heavens, you wonder now, some 30 unforgettable years later, if he was actually searching for some divine intervention.
For Fernando Valenzuela, those cherished victories, divine or not, happened with a flair and with a regularity no one could have imagined.
Danny Torres is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.