Monday, April 18, 2011

Fernandomania Revisited

I've been a Dodger fan most of my life, and it is hard for me to believe that it was 30 years ago this spring that the phenomenon known as "Fernandomania" swept over the land.

I was in college that spring and had to observe what was happening from afar (and that wasn't easy to do in 1981 — nightly cable baseball broadcasts were still years in the future). But, even in northwest Arkansas, I was aware of how Fernando Valenzuela had "radically altered the country's cultural and sporting landscape," as the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez observed a few weeks ago.

I'll say he did.

Valenzuela went 8–0 to start the 1981 season. The word "dominant" is often overused, but no other word is truly adequate to describe the start of Valenzuela's rookie campaign. Teams just couldn't figure him out. He had five shutouts in his first seven starts.

He also attracted a lot of attention for his unusual delivery, in which his eyes looked skyward just as he was about to throw the ball. He appeared to be looking for divine guidance or inspiration, and, in the first part of 1981, it seemed he was getting it.

But he was never really the same after a midsummer players' strike wiped out nearly 40% of the season. He struggled at times after play resumed. He went on to win both the Cy Young Award and the Rookie of the Year Award (the only pitcher to accomplish that), and he led the Dodgers to victory against their old American League rivals, the New York Yankees, in the World Series that fall.

But he was different after the strike.

In spite of the strike, he started 25 games that year and had 11 complete games. It was the only season that Valenzuela, with a fadeaway screwball that was widely said to be the best since Carl Hubbell pitched for the rival Giants in the 1930s and 1940s, led the league in strikeouts, shutouts, innings pitched and games started.

He had other major league seasons during his career that produced more of everything, but he never had a season like 1981.

"Mania" was the right word for it.

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