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Scott Ostler

Fernando Within Left Arm's Reach of Making It Back

June 21, 1989|Scott Ostler

"It's a hard racket out there," said John Roseboro, sitting on the Dodger bench before the old-timers' game last Sunday and nodding out toward the pitcher's mound. "If I was a youngster, that's the last place I would go. That arm is a delicate thing."

Roseboro was the Dodger catcher during the Koufax-Drysdale era.

That era ended when Don Drysdale's right shoulder wore out and Sandy Koufax's pitching fingers went dead, forcing him to retire rather than face the prospect of life nicknamed Rightie.

Even so, Drysdale and Koufax were at Dodger Stadium Sunday to suit up and throw an inning or two for the sake of nostalgia, and each seemed to feature a healthy pitching arm. Koufax wasn't out to embarrass any of his former teammates, but I've heard he is in great pitching shape and could walk to the mound right now and throw major league heaters for at least a few innings.

Which is more than you can say for Fernando Valenzuela, the Dodger starting pitcher in the young-timers' game that followed. Once, Fernando had a left arm as sturdy and durable as a construction crane. He started 255 games without missing a turn, a streak as impressive to me as Lou Gehrig's.

Then something snapped or stretched or twanged in Fernando's left shoulder and he became mortal. This is the year of his comeback. He began the season throwing fastballs that would stick in a spider web. The location of his pitches, as they say in baseball, was poor, several of them becoming located beyond the outfield walls.

He had bad stuff.

In the old days, watching Fernando work was a pleasure. Even opposing batters admired his craftsmanship. His pitches were like snowflakes, no two exactly alike.

But now, suddenly, he was a joke. It was a question of which was larger--Fernando's fastball or the hitters' eyes.

How long could the Dodgers afford to keep sending Valenzuela out to the mound for his twice-a-week shelling? How much damage could his dignity sustain before he took himself out of the rotation? His record was 0-5. What would be the cutoff point? 0-10? 0-20?

Then, about three weeks ago, the comeback started to kick in. Going into Sunday's game against the Braves, Fernando had won two in a row. Under the hot sun, he seemed to be throwing well, except for a gopher ball in the first inning.

I went down to watch a few innings from the dugout box seats behind home plate, the best place to watch a pitcher at work. Dodger scout Mike Brito was there, as always, aiming his speed gun at every pitch and then making a notation on his chart.

"He's up to 81, 82 (m.p.h.) today," Brito said. "But it's not the speed. The important thing is his control. His control was killing him. Now he has good command."

Brito is like a boxing manager, even down to the big cigar puffs and chomps in the 90-degree heat. Fernando is Brito's prize heavyweight.

"He's got more confidence in himself now. The cut fastball is working real well."

The cut fastball?

"He started throwing it about five games ago," Brito said. "I think (pitching coach Ron) Perranoski taught him. It's like a hard slider. He's throwing it a lot now."

A man named Frankie, who pitches batting practice to the Dodgers and is Fernando's friend, joined the discussion.

"Fernando's in great shape," Frankie said. "He's in the weight room every day, working on the weights, using the Versaclimber (leg- and arm-exercise machine)."

Behind the plate, catcher Mike Scioscia gave a sign, then shifted his body a foot closer to the batter.

"He's working inside a lot more now," Frankie said.

Fernando fired, the ball took a quick little swerve to our left and Scioscia's mitt never moved. Inside corner, called strike.

"There's the cut fastball," Brito said over his shoulder.

Fernando's agent, Tony DeMarco, joined the little gathering behind the screen.

"You know how stoic Fernando is," DeMarco said. "When things were going bad, he never fell to the floor, never cried. He maintained his dignity."

Did his fans desert him? No Dodger, no athlete, has ever enjoyed support from the city's Spanish-speaking community the way Fernando has over the years.

"The drama of going through the tough times, betrayed by luck, people got behind him even more," DeMarco said. "Fernando stopped being the superstar and they supported him very much. The Dodgers, from the brass to his teammates, they stayed with him, too. The Mexican (Mexico City) press has been very hard on him, but now I see stories, 'The Bull Is Charging Again.' "

Scioscia scooted back and forth behind the plate, set his targets and sucked up the pitches as if using a magnet.

"Scroogie," said Frankie as Geronimo Berroa waved weakly at a two-strike screwball, a pitch that detours in the opposite direction of the cut fastball.

"I tell you, he's back," Brito said.

Valenzuela faded in the eighth and was replaced. He marched to the dugout and slammed down his glove. After the game, his once ugly record now improved to 3-5, he turned his back on the reporters gathered at his locker and tossed out a few grumpy statements. He was more of a fun guy when his arm was unbreakable.

He is not back yet, not all the way. Maybe he never will be. His future rides on his pitching arm, and that arm is a delicate thing.

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