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Jim Murray

Fernando Throws Age a Screwball

March 28, 1985|JIM MURRAY

VERO BEACH, Fla. — When Fernando Valenzuela came to the big leagues, Bob Lemon, then a Yankee scout, stared in disbelief. He leaned over and asked a Dodger scout, "How old is he?"

"Twenty," was the reply.

Lemon thought about it a moment. "Twenty what?" he wanted to know.

Fernando Valenzuela was the unlikeliest character to put on a big league uniform since the day Babe Ruth hung his up.

"It's Orson Welles," Don Rickles guessed.

"It's Montezuma," someone said.

Still others thought it might be Santa Claus.

"Grover Cleveland Alexander with an accent," suggested baseball men.

The silhouette was a cross between that of a guy with a pillow tied around his middle and an Irish bartender. Jackie Gleason got the part if they made it into a movie.

Prevailing opinion was that Valenzuela's age was somewhere between 45 and infinity. A large school of thought held that he had been found frozen in the ruins of Macchu Picchu and thawed out for the season. There was no way this could be the body and the arm of any recent teen-ager.

When he pitched, the perception was heightened. He threw the kind of canny twisters only a guy who had spent a lifetime in the bush leagues could throw.

His poor pitches were hard to see. His good pitches disappeared altogether. He never lost his cool. He left the middle part of the plate alone and dealt in corners.

Rival managers not only wanted to see the ball, they wanted to see his birth certificate. There was some notion that he might have learned to pitch against General Custer.

He never did any of the things rookies do. He never kicked the water cooler when he lost. He never threw his cap in the air when he won. He treated baseball as if it was just another day in the fields.

He not only spoke no English, he spoke not much of anything. He seemed to wonder what everybody was getting excited about. He was paid to strike those guys out, wasn't he? He came from a long line of people who gave a day's work for a day's pay and didn't expect a ticker-tape parade for it, or their names in the paper.

He didn't exactly save baseball, but he gave it a shot in the arm. Baseball is a game that must have its dreams if it is to live. The legend of this old-young man with the devastating screwball walking out of the dry-bed lands of western Mexico and standing the flower of major league baseball on its ear was the stuff of legend, part Pancho Villa, part Cisco Kid.

America went wild. Television crews were on hand every time he stepped off a team bus. Magazines wanted to do in-depth stories, reporters swarmed over his childhood home in Etchohuaquila, ballparks were jammed on the nights he would pitch, players who got hits off him were booed.

Fernando was privately astonished, even if his face never changed expression. The joke was, Fernando didn't know the meaning of the word pressure. But then, he didn't know the meaning of the word cat, either.

The club assigned the Spanish-speaking broadcaster Jaime Jarrin the delicate task of interpreting for Fernando. Jarrin felt the pressure more than Fernando. Fernando just seemed to think all these gringos were crazy.

"I knew that one faulty translation, one missed interpretation could do great harm, could create a false impression which, like all false impressions, could grow into false reality," Jarrin recalls.

He needn't have worried, he says today. The simple, basic honesty of Valenzuela charmed the media, won over a country. Probably no player since Ruth ever had the same unreserved affection in the hearts of his sport's fans as Valenzuela. The critical writer disparaged Fernando at his peril.

Despite his seeming diffidence, Valenzuela worried more about his role in public than his one on the mound.

"I knew I was representing more than myself," he says today. "I knew I was representing Mexico to many people. I was aware of that."

Not for him the midnight trips to the discos. Not for him the curt refusals of autographs, the temper tantrums. Even his arguments over money were conducted in the polite dignity of summit meetings.

Even his appearance had to be modified. Although it contributed to his lovability--Fernando had some of the characteristics of a well-loved cartoon character in his makeup--Fernando slimmed down.

He'll never look like something out of the Louvre, but it's no part for Wallace Beery anymore. Valenzuela would not disgrace a suit of lights.

Although his season last year was sub-legend for Fernandomania, it was hardly substandard for a pitcher who is still only 24 years old, give or take a generation or so.

He pitched the second-most complete games in the league. His record of 12-17 looks less unimpressive when it is known that the team scored one run or none in 13 of those games, and fewer than two in 18 of them.

"He is probably the only pitcher in the big leagues who gets younger as he gets older," complained Sparky Anderson, who wishes he had him. He looked 40 when he was 20, maybe he'll look 20 when he's 40.

Meanwhile, the National League has this recurring nightmare. Valenzuela might just disappear into the mountains some day, like Jane Wyatt in "Lost Horizon."

They're not worried about his getting old. He's already been that. They're worried about his getting young, fading away into youth, the only guy who came into baseball at the age of 3,000 and left it when he lost his curve at the age of 2.

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