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Our Two Boys of Summer

June 08, 2003|Frank del Olmo | Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

In the not-always-friendly rivalry between the Los Angeles area's two major league baseball teams, it's unlikely that Artemania can top Fernandomania. That's probably why just as Arte Moreno's Anaheim Angels finally emerge from the shadow of the L.A. Dodgers by winning last year's World Series, the Dodgers have responded by calling Fernando Valenzuela out of history's bullpen.

Of course every baseball fan in town -- and many nonfans -- knows who Valenzuela is, and what he represents in recent L.A. history. Any who don't need only catch a performance of the new play at the Music Center's Mark Taper Forum, "Chavez Ravine."

The play relates the complex tale of how some old Mexican barrios near downtown Los Angeles were bulldozed in the 1950s to make way for Dodger Stadium. It unfolds as a series of historical vignettes being retold, in 1981, to a Dodger rookie from rural Mexico, Valenzuela, as he stands astride the pitcher's mound in Dodger Stadium.

Anyone who doubts the resonance of that dramatic device to a Latino audience need only note the attention the Dodgers got last week in L.A.'s Spanish-language media when they announced that Valenzuela was returning to his old team as a commentator on Spanish-language radio broadcasts. "theseFernandomania II?" La Opinion headlined. If only it were that easy to bring back.

Fernandomania, of course, was the term coined by the media to describe the fiesta-like atmosphere that descended on Dodger Stadium, and eventually the whole town, every time Valenzuela pitched during that spring of 1981. The young left-hander helped feed the frenzy by pitching brilliantly and capped that dream season by helping the Dodgers win the World Series.

For the Dodgers, 1981 was one of those magical years that baseball essayists, and the nostalgic fans who read them, often return to as symbols of larger social and cultural trends.

As "Chavez Ravine," the play, correctly surmises, Fernandomania helped heal a rift between the Dodgers and a big part of Los Angeles' Latino community that refused to forget Chavez Ravine, the neighborhood.

Having rooted for the Dodgers when they played in Brooklyn, I was not among the Latinos who rejected the team when it to town. But as a native-born Angeleno, my loyalties were severely torn when the Los Angeles Angels were born in 1960 and joined the American League. And my affection grew despite their poor record in the early years, and persisted even when the late Gene Autry moved his team to Orange County.

Sadly, it took the Angels decades to gain real respectability. And a big reason for their slow ascent to success was their failure to aggressively recruit Latin American baseball players. I was not surprised that when the Angels finally won the World Series last year, their roster included players from Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and a talented Latino rookie pitcher -- Francisco Rodriguez -- from Venezuela.

Also not surprising was the multitude of Latino fans in the stands, many of them residents of the increasingly Mexican neighborhoods around Anaheim Stadium.

But for local Latinos, the biggest Angel surprise came last month, when the team was sold to Moreno, a Mexican American businessman from Tucson. As Valenzuela was in his heyday, Moreno is now one of the hottest Latino celebrities in L.A.

Just what Moreno will make of fame in the big city remains to be seen. Reviews were mixed, for instance, on his vow to lower the price of beer at Anaheim Stadium. Sportswriters found it a fan-friendly gesture, but a vocal group of Latino activists were critical, concerned about the high incidence of alcoholism among Latinos.

It would do Moreno well to remember that even Fernandomania had its downbeat moments. Although the pitcher went on to have a fine career, Valenzuela never quite recaptured the magic of those early months of the '81 season. And after he finally retired from the majors in 1997, Valenzuela would never visit Dodger Stadium.

Dodger spokesmen say Valenzuela was invited to old timers' games and other events but never showed up -- until last week's press conference on his new broadcasting duties.

What with Artemania looming down the freeway, the Dodgers' reconciliation with Valenzuela comes at just the right time.

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