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#TBT: When Fernandomania ruled baseball

Lefty's legacy remains firmly intact 34 years after dominating as a rookie

At the risk of diminishing the significance of what happened 34 years ago today, from a big-picture standpoint, the six weeks leading up to that moment were just as important as that one particular standalone game.

It was an insane night on May 14, 1981, at Dodger Stadium, no question. Fernando Valenzuela, the 20-year-old rookie left-hander with an almost unhittable screwball, was in danger of ending a winning streak that had captivated a fan base and created an instant celebrity, in a city already full of them.

Valenzuela, a fill-in Opening Day starter pushed into duty due to an injury to veteran Jerry Reuss, had strung together a streak of wins that had reached seven games, produced five shutouts and registered a tiny 0.29 ERA.

The ninth inning of his May 14 start against the Expos threatened to end the whole thing.

Expos slugger Andre Dawson hit a solo homer off Valenzuela, tying the game. In the bottom of the inning, however, Pedro Guerrero led off with a home run that in today's vernacular would be called a walk-off homer. Back then, it was simply a game-winning RBI -- and a streak-saving moment.

Whether Valenzuela had been successful in extending the winning streak to eight, or if it had come to a close at seven, really is inconsequential. As much historical significance as that game against the Expos bears, it was really just part of a larger picture, one that has its own name, a name that still resonates among Dodgers fans and baseball fans in general: Fernandomania.

It was an understandable tidal wave. It's one thing for a superstar athlete to do things that don't seem possible. It's another thing when that athlete is also relatable, and Valenzuela was just that. He looked ... normal. Unimposing. Barrel-chested. Slightly pudgy. And with a mop of dark hair that exuded a youthful innocence.

On the mound, however, Valenzuela was super human, and he was treated as such by the Los Angeles fan base.

"Everybody thought this was going to be the greatest pitcher the game had ever seen," said Major League Baseball historian John Thorn.

Valenzuela, who today is part of the Dodgers' Spanish broadcasting team, calls the fan love back then "beautiful."

"Sometimes they ask me about games and I don't remember," Valenzuela said, referring to fans who still approach him to talk about that 1981 season. "They say, 'I was at that game, this happened.' That makes me feel good."

Valenzuela's breakout season, which resulted in a 13-7 record and a 2.48 ERA, seemed to fulfill the wishes of Walter O'Malley, the patriarch of the family-owned Dodgers, who years earlier told his management team he wanted to find "the Mexican Sandy Koufax."

Just as he witnessed when the Dodgers demolished the color barrier and signed Jackie Robinson, O'Malley understood that producing a star player identifiable with a previously untapped fan base is simply good for business.

The Mexican community was large and growing in L.A., but so far, the Dodgers hadn't figured out how to market to it.

That changed when longtime scout Mike Brito found a raw 19-year-old lefty in the tiny town of Sonora, Mexico. Valenzuela didn't necessarily exude superstar stuff at the time, but Brito convinced Dodgers management to take a chance on him.

O'Malley didn't live long enough to witness Fernandomania, but it's safe to say he would have been pleased.

Video: Valenzuela makes first start on Opening Day in 1981

Fernandomania took off practically from day one in 1981, with Valenzuela shutting out the Astros on Opening Day with a five-hitter. Valenzuela allowed one run in his next start, and he then followed it up by tossing three complete-game shutouts, allowing one run in his sixth start and then firing another complete-game shutout. The eighth start against the Expos was the first time he gave up as many as two runs.

Soon, Fernandomania was no longer limited to Los Angeles. Though he spoke little English, Valenzuela was tasked with attending specially-arranged news conferences in every city, with the help of an interpreter (usually broadcaster Jaime Jarrin) to ease the media crush that awaited him wherever the Dodgers traveled.

Valenzuela may not have loved the attention, but he handled it with a maturity that extended beyond his 20 years. He also leaned on teammates to maintain a somewhat normal environment.

"In '81, my first full season, the team had a lot of experience and good ballplayers with a lot of experience," Valenzuela said. "The players helped me, to give me confidence to do my job. That helped me a lot."

Valenzuela pitched 17 years in the big leagues, though he never quite maintained the greatness that he displayed in his first several years with the Dodgers. A pitch as violent as the screwball takes a toll on an elbow, and that's likely why today, the full body of Valenzuela's work is considered good, but not immortal.

Still, Valenzuela's legacy remains firmly intact. Need evidence? Notice the ripple of excitement that emerges from the stands when the video board captures Valenzuela in the broadcast booth at Dodger Stadium.

"While he won World Series games and while he won a Cy Young, and was just a tremendous inspiration, especially to the Mexican-American community in Los Angeles and throughout the U.S., and in Mexico, Fernando's role in baseball, as we look back on it now, is of culture hero then it as one of the all-time great pitchers," Thorn said.

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.
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