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Fernando Valenzuela was a game-changer for the Dodgers, baseball, and Los Angeles

What became known as Fernandomania began with an opening-day shutout by Mexican rookie Fernando Valenzuela 30 years ago. He'll throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Dodger Stadium on Thursday. In between, he radically altered the American cultural and sporting landscape.

March 30, 2011|By Dylan Hernandez

As he did 30 years ago, Fernando Valenzuela will take the mound at Dodger Stadium on opening day.

From the very place he started a phenomenon that radically altered the country's cultural and sporting landscape, Valenzuela will throw the ceremonial first pitch before the Dodgers face the San Francisco Giants on Thursday.

Fernandomania will return to Los Angeles -- but with a notable difference.

When he winds up to throw the ball, Valenzuela won't look skyward the way he used to.

"I can't do it if I think about it. I would fall down, especially if I'm wearing street shoes," he said, laughing. "It wasn't something I did because I wanted to. I didn't even know I did that until someone showed me a video."

Photos: The Fernando Valenzuela years

Valenzuela said he was similarly oblivious to how his performance on the baseball field was influencing the world around him. He couldn't see beyond the surface -- the huge crowds that met him at every stop, the demands on his time, his win-loss record, the rotation on his trademark "screwball" pitch.

He was only 20 years old when then-manager Tom Lasorda chose him as the Dodgers' opening-day starter in 1981. The pudgy left-hander, born in the remote Mexican town of Etchohuaquila, had moved to the United States less than two years earlier.

"I had just come here and I didn't know what life was like for the Mexican, the Latino, in the United States," Valenzuela said. "It was difficult for me to comprehend that. I was focused on myself."

He said he didn't notice more Latinos in the seats at Dodger Stadium. Or that he was helping ease long-standing ethnic and cultural tensions in the city. Or that he was drawing the attention of businesses to the growing Latino market. Or that because of him teams were increasingly looking outside the country for players.

"The impact he made not only in Southern California but in all of the country, it was really great for the game," said Bud Selig, commissioner of baseball.

Now 50, Valenzuela is as unassuming today as he was unaware back then.

Poll: Should the Dodgers retire Fernando Valenzuela's number?

His eyes often hidden behind sunglasses, he wears Guayabera shirts that are popular in Mexico and doesn't say much. But he has a quirky sense of humor.

"Ey," you call to him, and he responds, "B, C," as if reciting the alphabet.

"What's up?" you ask him, and he tells you, "The ceiling."

A color commentator on the Dodgers' Spanish-language broadcasts, he wears a credential around his neck like every other member of the media. But at Dodger Stadium he wouldn't need it; he is recognized everywhere.

The lasting impact of his superlative rookie season -- he won the Cy Young, rookie of the year and Silver Slugger awards, as well as a World Series championship ring -- can be seen in the crowds.

"Now, you go to the ballpark, there are certain sections where they speak more Spanish than English," said Jaime Jarrin, the Dodgers' longtime Spanish-language broadcaster.

The Dodgers, who said they drew more than 3.5 million fans last season, have survey research that indicates about 40% of their fan base is Latino.

Although there is no way to directly quantify Valenzuela's effect, former team executive Derrick Hall guessed that attendance at Dodger Stadium would be 10% to 20% lower had Valenzuela never played.

Because of that and his pitching, "I personally think Fernando belongs in the Hall of Fame," said Hall, now president of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Until Valenzuela wore a Dodgers uniform, the Mexican American community in Los Angeles viewed the franchise "with a degree of wariness," said Samuel Regalado, a history professor at Cal State Stanislaus whose fields of expertise include U.S. immigration, Latin America and sports.

"The construction of Dodger Stadium was not one of the highlights of the Mexican community," Regalado said of the Dodgers' takeover of what used to be a Mexican American neighborhood.

Dodgers have new sense of purpose

But by the time Valenzuela became a Dodger, Regalado said, social activism of the 1960s had been replaced by a growing desire for assimilation by the end of the 1970s. More Latinos were educated, and more had money to spend.

The late Walter O'Malley, who moved the club to L.A. from Brooklyn before the 1958 season, had anticipated as much.

Jarrin said O'Malley was particularly mindful of the Mexican American community, evidenced by how the Dodgers started Spanish-language radio broadcasts as soon they moved to Los Angeles.

"He had a vision," Jarrin said. "He knew that eventually that market would grow and would be a very important part of the business for the Dodgers."

So, when scout Corito Verona sent word from Mexico about a promising 17-year-old pitcher, O'Malley dispatched another scout to get a second opinion. Valenzuela was signed in 1979 for $120,000.

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