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Fernando Valenzuela: From Sonora, Mexico to Major League Baseball Stardom  

February 14, 2024

Baseball is a sport that arouses passions in much of the world, and many countries throughout history have nurtured Major League Baseball teams with great players: Pedro Martínez and David Ortiz from the Dominican Republic, Roberto Clemente from Puerto Rico, Miguel Cabrera from Venezuela, Édgar Rentería from Colombia, Orestes Miñoso

Baseball is a sport that arouses passions in much of the world, and many countries throughout history have nurtured Major League Baseball teams with great players: Pedro Martínez and David Ortiz from the Dominican Republic, Roberto Clemente from Puerto Rico, Miguel Cabrera from Venezuela, Édgar Rentería from Colombia, Orestes Miñoso from Cuba, just to mention a few. All of them have a legacy in each of their ballclubs, however, there is one player in particular who captured the hearts and eyes of fans in the southern United States, and at the same time, highlighted Mexican baseball during his 19-year career at the highest level. Fernando "El Toro" Valenzuela broke the mold of the major league pitcher and transcended the history of the Los Angeles Dodgers with the famous "Fernandomania."

Fernando Valenzuela Anguamea was born in Navojoa, Sonora on November 1, 1960, the youngest of 12 children. Fernando's parents raised the family by working as farmers in a completely rural area in northern Mexico, where one of children's favorite activities was sports, specifically, baseball. Valenzuela started out playing right field, but from the moment he took the mound, it was clear he had found his path as a pitcher.

Fernando's professional career began with the Cafetaleros de Tepic in Mexico, where he signed a contract for $250. After having a short stint with the Angeles de Puebla, he arrived at what would be his last team in the Mexican Baseball League, the Leones de Yucatán. Despite being one of the most limited teams in the league, the performances of El Toro filled its stands and attracted the eyes of scouts from major league teams. The scout who would finally make Valenzuela's dream come true was Mike Brito of the Dodgers, who was originally visiting Mexico to see shortstop Ali Uscanga, a player facing Valenzuela. Fernando struck him out on three pitches in the first at-bat, and Brito would later confirm that he completely forgot about Uscanga and dedicated the entire game to evaluating the left-handed pitcher.

In 1979, Valenzuela went on to play High-A ball with the Dodgers, where he learned the pitch from Mexican-American pitcher Roberto "Babo" Castillo that would bring him fame and glory in the future: the screwball. Just one year later, Valenzuela was called up to the main roster bullpen in the final month of the season and recorded two wins and one save in 10 games.

By Opening Day of the 1981 season, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda was faced with injury problems in his starting rotation, and minutes before the game, he decided to trust the then-unknown Valenzuela. The fans in attendance and broadcasters wondered, who was this little Mexican pitcher dominating the Houston Astros in such a magical way? Valenzuela completed nine scoreless innings, and the Dodgers got the win, 2-0, thus beginning a streak of eight consecutive games with a win – five of them by shutout – in a season that ended with a 13-7 record and a 2.48 ERA. Fernando was and remains the only pitcher to win the Cy Young Award and the National League Rookie of the Year Award in the same year. This was the birth of "Fernandomania," the excitement that surrounded baseball's highest-scored pitcher from 1981 to 1986 who won 21 games in 1986, six All-Star Games, and even hit 10 home runs.

One of the most prodigious minds in baseball is that of Dr. Charles Steinberg, president of the Worcester Red Sox, who in the past, had the opportunity to experience "Fernandomania" firsthand because of his time in the Los Angeles Dodgers' and San Diego Padres' Front Offices.

"He was an international charismatic phenomenon," Steinberg said. "He belonged not only to the Dodgers, but also to Mexico and all of Latin America."

In 1995, Larry Lucchino had left an excellent legacy with the Baltimore Orioles, both on the sports and business sides with the birth of Camden Yards, and here was the first time Lucchino and a Valenzuela met. Even though the best part of his career had already passed, El Toro still delivered on the mound. The next destination of Lucchino's career was down south with the San Diego Padres, a destination to which he invited Steinberg.

"Larry knew that one of the key elements in San Diego would be to foster unity between dual nationality between San Diego and Baja California, a region of 5 million people," recalls Steinberg, who wisely approached Lucchino to tell him that they should consider signing Valenzuela, unaware that Lucchino had already spoken to his agent the night before.

"We signed Fernando, and I saw firsthand some of the problems that international stars face because there was a portion of fans that didn't want him," Steinberg said. "A lady called me personally to say, 'They're only signing him because he's Mexican.' Fernando proceeded to win 22 games, more than anyone else in the National League from June of '95 to June of '96."

Prior to Lucchino and Valenzuela's arrival, the Padres had not really engaged in efforts to reach out to the Mexican-American community, but this decision paid off by making the Padres one of the most beloved teams in northern Mexico. The relationship between the team and the Mexican fans would go even further.

"In August 1996, Larry led the efforts to make the Padres the first team in baseball history to play regular-season games outside of the United States or Canada, in Monterrey, Mexico," Steinberg proudly recalls. This started a long-lasting relationship between Mexico and Major League Baseball.

Valenzuela and Steinberg's paths crossed again in 2008 when Steinberg joined the Dodgers, and Valenzuela, since retired, participated in the team's Spanish-language broadcasts.

"Even last year when the Dodgers hosted the All-Star Game, I had a chance to see him in the press box and reminisce about our times in San Diego and Baltimore," Steinberg said.

On August 11, the Dodgers decided to retire Valenzuela's legendary number, 34, a decision that, for many, was long past due.

"It's about time!" Steinberg said. "Tremendously deserved, he's one of the most important players in the history of the Dodgers. You start with Jackie Robinson and the doors that he opened, then you have to talk about Sandy Koufax and the doors that he opened, and the doors that Fernando also opened. He's one of the most important cultural pioneers in baseball history."

Larry Lucchino also took the opportunity to say a few words about Valenzuela and the merit that no Dodger can ever wear his number again.

"He was an amazing guy, I was able to share with him in San Diego, in Baltimore, and he always produced for us, his agent was a key part of his career. I appreciate Fernando very much because I appreciate greatness, and it was time for his number to be retired,” Lucchino said.