In the months between the worst summer and the most anxious spring of his baseball career, Fernando Valenzuela has had a lot of time for soul-searching.
Time to reflect on a year turned sour by a shoulder that gave out after 255 consecutive starts for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Time to mourn a father who saw him leave the family's home in Etchohuaquila, Mexico, for a shot at fame and fortune in El Norte , and who perhaps never quite understood, even at the time of his death from cancer last summer, the magnitude of his son's accomplishments on the mound.
And time to wonder whether he will ever recapture the magic that made him the toast of this town as a 20-year-old rookie in 1981.
Those were the days of Fernandomania, of sellout crowds, of color posters snatched by adoring fans as fast as they were printed, and of opposing batters shaking their heads after futile attempts at hitting the kid's dazzling screwball.
These are the days of uncertainty. As the Dodgers prepare for spring training in Vero Beach, the question is not only can the team repeat its world championship, but can Valenzuela be a factor in helping them do so.
The Valenzuela of even three years ago can. The one from the last couple of seasons would have trouble cracking the starting rotation.
After a marvelous 21-11 season in 1986, with a National League-leading 20 complete games, Valenzuela managed only to split 28 decisions in 1987.
Last year, he went 5-8 with a 4.24 ERA and registered more walks than strikeouts for the first time ever. Valenzuela was placed on the disabled list last July 31 because of a strained left shoulder. Some baseball people speculated that heavy use of the screwball had contributed to the injury. The left-hander returned for two brief appearances in September but did not pitch in the playoffs or World Series.
Fernando fans are pondering whether Valenzuela's shoulder has given out after 2,000 innings pitched in the majors and a few hundred more in the minor and Mexican leagues, or whether there is any mileage left in it.
Nobody can be certain of that. Valenzuela, however, is optimistic about the 1989 season.
"It's difficult to know how much the shoulder has improved . . . but it feels stronger," said Valenzuela during a recent workout at Dodger Stadium. "I've worked on a program set by Pat (Screnar) since the season ended and will continue to do so throughout spring training."
Screnar, the Dodger physical therapist, prepared a strengthening program for Valenzuela that consists of different exercises with weights. "He has been monitored during the off-season and the shoulder is definitely stronger," he said.
It's hard to imagine a 28-year-old former Cy Young Award winner as a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year, but that's what Valenzuela will be in 1989. At least he hopes he will be. And so do a lot of his fans who have admired not only Fernando's pitching prowess but also the way he has conducted himself with style and dignity.