On This Date May 14, 1981: Fernandomania

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

There was something in the air over Dodger Stadium, as the stars were bright for Fernando Valenzuela, who won his eighth straight start, going the distance as the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Montreal Expos 3-2. Fernandomania had swept all of baseball, as the 20-year old pitcher from Mexico started the season 8-0 and had an ERA of 0.50. Valenzuela would go on to win both the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year.

Fernando Valenzuela was born on November 1, 1960, in Sonora, Mexico. At an early age, he learned how to throw a screwball and became a highly watched prospect. At the age of 17, he began playing professionally in the Mexican Central League. A year later, he began catching the eye of Major League Scouts, but teams were reluctant to buy out his contract from the Mexican League. Finally, in 1979, the Los Angeles Dodgers paid $120,00 for the right to sign him.

Fernando Valenzuela quickly moved through the Dodgers system and pitched in the heart of a pennant race as a September call-up in 1980. As the Dodgers finished in a flat-footed tie with the Houston Astros, Valenzuela 17 innings of scoreless relief, earning two wins and allowing just two hits. The Dodgers would lose a one-game playoff to Houston after the end of the season, but fans were ready to embrace Mexico's new star.

When the 1981 season began, Fernando Valenzuela found himself on the mound on Opening Day, as Jerry Reuss had to be scratched at the last minute. The Dodgers would win the game 2-0, as Valenzuela pitched a complete-game five-hit shutout, launching Fernandomania. With Fernando Valenzuela leading the way, the Dodgers came flying out of the gate in 1981, quickly taking control of the National League West. In five April starts, the young lefty from Mexico went the distance in each game, allowing just one run.

As May began, Dodger games with Fernando Valenzuela became an event in Los Angeles, as the Mexican community embraced a new hero. Valenzuela became a national phenomenon appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. After two complete-game wins in Montreal and against the Mets at Shea Stadium, Fernando Valenzuela got another start at home against the Expos, whom he ten days earlier 6-1. With a capacity crowd on hand, Fernando Valenzuela did not disappoint, though the Expos took a 1-0 lead on a home run by Chris Sprier in the third inning. The Dodgers, meanwhile, were held in check by Bill Gullickson, who finally faltered in the sixth inning, allowing a two-run single by Steve Garvey. Looking for a complete game, Valenzuela retired the first two batters but was stunned when Andre Dawson tied the game with a home run. He would go on to end the ninth inning by retiring Gary Carter. Sitting in the dugout with extra innings looking possible, Valenzuela celebrated a win as Pedro Guerrero hit a home run off Steve Ratzer. The Dodgers won the game 3-2, with Valenzuela allowing two runs on three hits with seven strikeouts.

Fernando Valenzuela’s perfect start ended with a 4-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on May 18th. However, he had become the star of the season as the Dodgers appeared to be on the way for a magical season, sitting at 36-21 on June 12th when the season was halted due to a strike. Heading into the strike, Fernando Valenzuela had hit a wall and was 9-4 with an ERA of 2.45.

When the season resumed, Fernando Valenzuela again was pitching strong as he finished the year with a record of 13-7 with an ERA of 2.48 and a league-high 180 strikeouts. He would win the Rookie of the Year, and the National League Cy Young, the only pitcher to win both the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year as the Dodgers won the 1981 World Series.

Fernando Valenzuela was an All-Star in each of his first six seasons, culminating in a 21-win season in 1986. However, the rest of his career was not as strong as he struggled over the final decade of his career, ending in 1997 with a record 173-153.