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CROWE'S NEST

A screwball chain of events led the Dodgers to Fernando Valenzuela

The Dodgers might never have discovered the pitcher who inspired Fernandomania and helped them to World Series glory 30 years ago, if not for an unlikely string of occurrences that began in 1976 during a semipro game at an East L.A. rec center.

March 27, 2011|Jerry Crowe
  • A 1976 semipro game in East L.A. in which Bobby Castillo, right, struck out Mike Brito ultimately led to Brito's discovering Fernando Valenzuela.
A 1976 semipro game in East L.A. in which Bobby Castillo, right, struck out… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

One of the most pivotal at-bats in Dodgers history also ranks among the least known.

Had it never happened, Fernando Valenzuela might never have pitched for the Dodgers and Fernandomania might never have gripped the Southland as it did 30 years ago this spring.

"It's like a movie script," Mike Brito says.

Brito played a starring role in a 1976 drama that unfolded not in Dodger Stadium or any other major league park, but rather on a dusty diamond in East Los Angeles.

The batter was Brito, the pitcher Bobby "Babo" Castillo.

Castillo would later pitch for the Dodgers and Brito, he of the ubiquitous cigar and Panama hat, would gain fame as perhaps the most recognizable scout in baseball.

But at the time, Castillo was a recently released ex-minor leaguer. He'd been told by the Kansas City Royals that, as a third-base prospect, he was no longer wanted and that, despite his success at Lincoln High and L.A. Valley College, he was too short at 5 feet 10 to pitch in the major leagues.

Brito, a Mexican League scout, was a former Washington Senators farmhand and Mexican League veteran.

They were playing in a semipro game at Evergreen Recreation Center in Boyle Heights when Brito, 21 years older than the pitcher, stepped to the plate in the ninth inning.

What happened next, they say, not only altered their lives but would eventually affect Valenzuela too. It triggered a series of events that landed both Castillo and Valenzuela in the majors, provided a plum assignment for Brito and led to Valenzuela's learning his signature pitch from Castillo.

After Brito laced a long drive into left field that landed only inches foul, Castillo struck him out with a screwball that fooled Brito so badly, Castillo says, "He almost hurt his back."

So impressed was Brito that he cornered Castillo afterward to inquire about the pitch that had made him look foolish.

"Next thing I know," Castillo says, "I get a phone call from him asking if I want to go to Mexico as a pitcher."

When Castillo thrived in Mexico, Brito says, it didn't sit well with then-Dodgers general manager Al Campanis, who wondered how a local kid who'd grown up practically in the shadow of Dodger Stadium could escape from under the Dodgers' noses.

Campanis called Brito and offered him a job as a scout — provided Brito could deliver Castillo to the Dodgers.

Castillo made his Dodgers debut in 1977. A year later, in Mexico, Brito caught his first glimpse of Valenzuela, leading to the Dodgers' buying the pitcher out of his contract in 1979 and assigning him to Lodi of the Class-A California League.

Brito, however, says that Campanis was angered anew when Brito told the executive he was worried about Valenzuela's velocity and suggested that he needed to develop an off-speed pitch.

"Campanis got [ticked] off," Brito says, laughing. "He said, 'How come you didn't tell me that before when you made a good report on him and you were in love with him so much?'"

Brito calmed his boss by suggesting that a possible option for Valenzuela would be to learn a screwball from Castillo.

Castillo says he first learned the pitch from his Lincoln High coaches, Carl Brio and Dave Chavez, and in Arizona after the 1979 season, he taught it to Valenzuela.

"He didn't speak English and I didn't speak Spanish that well," Castillo says, "but we did communicate. He caught on quickly. It was like it was meant for him."

Says Brito, "I'm not lying to you: Within a week, Fernando was throwing the screwball as good as Babo."

In 1980, after a trip to Texas to check on Valenzuela's progress at double-A San Antonio, Brito reported to Campanis that the left-hander's mastery of the pitch was "unbelievable."

Valenzuela, though, says it wasn't all that simple.

"The first half [in 1980], it wasn't going that well," he told Times reporter Dylan Hernandez. "I said, 'I don't want to throw it anymore. I want to go back to what I do.' They told me, 'No. We don't care about your record. We don't care how many games you win. We want you to keep practicing it.'

"By the second half, it was a lot better. By then, I had good rotation on it and good control."

Called up to the majors in September 1980, Valenzuela made 10 relief appearances down the stretch and did not give up an earned run in 172/3 innings. In 1981, as a 20-year-old rookie, he touched off a cultural phenomenon when he opened the season with a shutout and won his first eight decisions, five by shutout.

Carl Hubbell, a Hall of Famer who'd retired in the early 1940s, told reporters, "He's got the best screwball since mine."

By season's end, the Mexican icon was the National League's rookie of the year and Cy Young Award winner and the Dodgers were World Series champions.

"To have a teammate be as successful as he was, and to know I had something to do with it," Castillo says, "it was awesome."

But it might never have happened if Castillo hadn't retired Brito on a Sunday in Boyle Heights five years earlier.

"If I would have got a hit, I never would have signed Babo," says Brito, who has since signed about 90 other players, 31 of whom have reached the majors. "And if I hadn't signed Babo, I would never have worked for the Dodgers and maybe Fernando never would have been in the picture."

Back then, of course, nobody could have known that — and Castillo says his only motivation was to avoid embarrassment.

"I didn't want this old man to beat me," he says.

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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