THE CALL, LIKE the one that arrived hours before Opening Day in 1981, came out of nowhere.
And Fernando Valenzuela, just as he had been some 42 years earlier, was caught off guard.
Being asked, as a 20-year-old who had never started a major league game, if he was ready to take the mound to open the season for the pennant-contending Los Angeles Dodgers was one thing. Being told at the age of 62 — after using that initial start more than four decades earlier to launch the cultural phenomenon known as Fernandomania as well as a decorated 17-season career — that his iconic uniform number 34 was being retired by the Dodgers? Well, that was una otra cosa.
Another thing. Entirely.
The Dodgers usually only retire the numbers of players who are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame (the late Jim Gilliam was the previous lone exception, his number 19 retired two days after his sudden passing in 1978), and Valenzuela fell off the writers’ ballot after garnering just 3.8% of the vote in 2004.
And yet an exception was made thanks to the appeal and continued cultural impact of the Dodgers’ homegrown Mexican pitcher who transcended the game and transformed a fan base.
“What do you want me to say? Of course I was surprised,” Valenzuela recently told ESPN.com with a laugh. “I never expected this to happen. You’ve got to be in Cooperstown. … It was a surprise.
“It’s not just for me, but for the people — the fans and my family.”
As such, Valenzuela will become the 12th Dodger to be so honored, joining the likes of Jackie Robinson (42), Sandy Koufax (32), Don Drysdale (53) and Tommy Lasorda (2) in a pregame ceremony Friday at Dodger Stadium. In fact, it’s a weekend-long fiesta for “El Toro,” with a bobblehead in Valenzuela’s likeness given to fans Saturday and a replica of his 1981 World Series championship ring passed out Sunday.
His number being retired, though, is the most impactful. Dodgers president Stan Kasten said in February the team “reviewed” its Hall of Fame members-only policy for number retirement after a “citywide call” by fans.
“What he accomplished during his playing career, not only on the field but in the community, is extraordinary,” Kasten said at the team’s FanFest. “He truly lit up the imaginations of baseball fans everywhere. It’s hard to envision a player having a greater impact on a fan base than the one Fernando has had.”
VALENZUELA GREW UP in anonymity in the Mexican village of Etchohuaquila in Sonora, where he and his five brothers slept in one bed. He spoke no English as he dominated the American pastime.
In a pre-Internet world, Valenzuela was more than an anomaly. He was, according to Hall of Fame Dodgers Spanish language announcer Jaime Jarrin, a mystery.
“His charisma was unbelievable,” said Jarrin, who served as Valenzuela’s interpreter early in his career. “The fact that he came here to the major leagues [in September 1980] after spending just a few weeks in San Antonio at Double-A — and from the beginning, he was just amazing. And the people fell in love with him. … He was only 19 years old. Little bit chubby, long hair, Yaqui Indian features. Those things really cultivated the people and they fell in love with Fernando in a matter of a few weeks.”
Answering Lasorda’s call for that emergency assignment — it was the first of Valenzuela’s six Opening Day starts with the Dodgers; only Clayton Kershaw (9), Drysdale (7) and Don Sutton (7) have more — Valenzuela twirled a 2-0 shutout at the Houston Astros and did not look back.
The cherubic lefthander won his first eight starts and, along with that late-1980 call-up, Valenzuela was 10-0 with five shutouts, eight complete games and a 0.40 earned run average in his first 18 career games. As a rookie, he started the 1981 All-Star Game, held the Dodgers afloat in a deciding Game 5 of the National League Championship Game against the Montreal Expos and beat the New York Yankees in Game 3 of the World Series en route to the Dodgers’ first title in 16 years.
“He was a younger player that was way ahead of his time, especially intellectually and as far as baseball was concerned,” said Dusty Baker, who mentored Valenzuela in Los Angeles during his rookie year. “Any man that I meet — man, woman or child — when they find out I played with the Dodgers, they want to know, ‘Oh really, were you friendly with Fernando?’ Yeah, that was my guy.”
He remains the only player to win the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards in the same season, while also visiting the White House … midseason, in an event to honor then-Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo.
That Valenzuela was doing it with a screwball, a pitch not really in vogue since Carl Hubbell was dealing before World War II ended, and one Valenzuela had been taught by Dodgers right-hander Bobby Castillo less than two years earlier, was as fascinating as it was game changing.
“Babo threw it hard, so it sunk,” Valenzuela said. “I thought, What if I took some speed off it, and it dropped more like a curveball?” The results were devastating.
Meanwhile…with the #Dodgers retiring Fernando Valenzuela’s No. 34 mañana, I have a story posting Friday on the iconic left-hander’s cultural impact with the phenomenon known as Fernandomania. Here, he showed me his screwball grip… pic.twitter.com/1G1BRYYtL3
— Paul Gutierrez (@PGutierrezESPN) August 10, 2023
Yet, if his stats talked for themselves, Valenzuela’s cultural impact spoke at least two languages — and at a time it was desperately needed for the Dodgers.
When Dodger Stadium opened in Chavez Ravine in 1962, it was on the heels of a 10-year battle with residents who had lost their homes in the area after eminent domain was declared to purportedly build public housing. After those plans fell through, the Dodgers, who had moved from Brooklyn, got a sweetheart deal to build on the land.
“I had a brother-in-law who would never go to Dodger games, he could just never have anything to do with them, really, because of that,” said Dr. Felix Gutierrez, a professor of journalism emeritus at USC who focuses on racial diversity, media and the history of Latino news in the United States. “I had another brother-in-law who loved the Dodgers. He’d listen to the games right and left. So there was a mix of emotions about the Dodgers when Fernando hit.”
Valenzuela’s arrival and prominence served as a salve, of sorts, to Los Angeles Latinos in general, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in particular, who had sworn off attending games at Dodger Stadium.
And it crossed sporting spectrums.
Across town, future Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Tom Flores, whose family moved to Central California from Mexico when he was young, was watching, especially after his Raiders relocated to Los Angeles in 1982.
“It was kinda neat,” Flores said. “Finally, there was some Mexican on the mound that they were honoring.
“I thought, ‘This guy’s a little quirky, because he had that high kick and his eyes disappeared into his forehead.’ But, boy, when that ball left his hand, it was zooming. And he had great control, and he was a competitive guy. He really was more than people realized. I admired him. He was low-key.”
In East L.A , a young boxer and his family took notice, often watching Valenzuela pitch on their tiny TV.
“He was hope, he was our way out, you know?” Oscar De La Hoya said. “If he can do it, we can do it. People like that, like Fernando, paved the way and now people like me are paving the way and it’s a trickle effect.”
De La Hoya wore a No. 34 jersey when he threw out a ceremonial first pitch at Dodger Stadium in 2016.
“That was by design,” laughed De La Hoya, who became golfing buddies with Valenzuela later in life. “He was a hero to us because we just felt so proud, that he came from Mexico, that he was one of us.
“Proud of, obviously, how he pitched and becoming a winner. He was just inspirational to us.”
Valenzuela took Mexicans and Mexican-Americans out of the shadows, even if he did not realize it at the time. Attendance jumped by an average of 7,500 for his starts at Dodger Stadium in 1981, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.
“As big a star that he was, he exemplified Mexicans coming to the United States, doing good work, knowing their job, doing their job, by his productivity, by his skills,” Gutierrez said. “We’ve always had the talent; we didn’t always have the opportunity. He was afforded the opportunity and he made the most of it.
“He stayed linked and tied to his people, to his community. We saw him as a representative of Mexicans and Latinos to the rest of L.A. — ‘Hey, look what we can do. Give us the opportunity.'”
“With my respects to Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Willie Mays, all of the major leaguers, Fernando is the one that created more new baseball followers,” Jarrin said. “People from Mexico, from Central America, from South America, they didn’t care at all about baseball, but they fell in love with the game. It was unbelievable. In those days, of course, we didn’t have the computers that we have now. Everything was through telephone calls or letters or cards — I was swamped by that — to find out something about Fernando.”
Usual staid stadiums came to life on the road.
“He had such a charisma that everywhere we went, people fell in love with him,” Jarrin said. “Going to Chicago, they were averaging 12,000 people. But when Fernando was announced, it was sold out, 31,000 people there. Same thing in New York. Same thing in St. Louis. It was magic.”
Now, the Los Angeles Times says 40% of the Dodgers fanbase is Latino, and credits Valenzuela with that uptick.
“I was a witness, man,” said Dave Stewart, who pitched in 32 games for the Dodgers during Valenzuela’s rookie season. “He blew up everywhere we went. You could expect packed stadiums and people at the ballpark early. Early. Just to see him. The media attention was just unbelievable. I had never seen anything like it before, or since, and I’ve been around the game now for 48 years.
“People talk about [Shohei] Ohtani, and Ohtani is a great attraction, but I don’t believe the madness is as crazy as it was for Fernando. … Fernando was [playing] a single day, and Ohtani is every day. But in a single day, I’ve never seen such madness in my life.”
FROM 1983 to 1987, Valenzuela averaged 262 innings pitched and 13 complete games for the Dodgers. He had a streak of 255 consecutive starts, which ended August 1988. He had 20 complete games in 1986, when he won a league-high 21 games and had a 3.14 ERA and finished second in the NL Cy Young voting. He had 96 complete games in his first seven seasons. (For comparison, Justin Verlander, last year’s AL Cy Young winner, has 26 complete games … in 18 years.)
“Termino lo que empiezo,” Valenzuela was fond of saying — I finish what I start.
One of the more memorable came June 29, 1990. A few hours after watching his old teammate Stewart throw a no-hitter for the Oakland A’s, Valenzuela slyly predicted another no-no might be witnessed that night. Sure enough, he went out and authored his own.
“This is the honest to God truth,” Stewart said softly. “What a great moment in baseball and in baseball history — if I have to share that moment, who better to share the moment with?”
Valenzuela left the Dodgers the next year and bounced around the league, playing one season each for the Angels, Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies and two for the San Diego Padres. His last MLB game came in 1997, but he continued pitching occasionally in Mexico up until 2006.
Through all those years, while capturing the imagination of American baseball fans, he also won the hearts and minds of his Mexican countrymen, especially those of ballplayers with dreams of pitching in las grandes ligas. In 2021, Julio Urías, another Dodgers lefty with an arsenal of filthy pitches, joined him as one of just four Mexican-born pitchers to win at least 20 games in a season. But unlike Valenzuela, Urías had a very specific Mexican role model to look up to as he made his way to L.A.
“I can’t ask for more, being Mexican and wearing the same jersey as he did,” Urías said in Spanish. “Obviously, Fernando, for us as Mexicans, is an inspiration, the biggest star that Mexican baseball has given us.
“We have to give him the respect he has earned with everything he did in his time and everything he keeps doing. To get to the point where your number is retired, that’s something very big, especially being Mexican, facing all the adversities and it being more difficult for him in his time.
“I’m very happy and fortunate to be able to know him, and share and enjoy such a big day with his number retirement.”
While Valenzuela wore No. 34 in many of those big league stops after his days in Los Angeles, no player has worn it for the Dodgers since he was released near the end of spring training in 1991. Mitch Poole, the team’s visiting clubhouse manager who has been with the Dodgers since becoming a bat boy in 1985, made it his mission to keep No. 34 out of circulation.
“The Mexican community is so huge here in L.A,” said Poole, who has also served as the Dodgers’ assistant clubhouse and head equipment managers. “I wasn’t there yet in ’81 but I came to see the outpouring of emotions from the Mexican-American community, too. So I said, as long as I’m here, I will not release that number. As a thank you to him.”
It was an unwritten policy honored by clubbies and players alike. The closest anyone came to requesting the number was when Manny Ramirez came to Los Angeles in 2008. He wanted it as a tribute to his old Boston Red Sox teammate David Ortiz. After Poole suggested No. 28, to honor fellow Dominican and Dodgers star Pedro Guerrero, Ramirez settled for No. 99.
(Though Valenzuela has never spoken on why he chose the number, there is a conspiracy theory that wearing the digits was free publicity for Channel 34 in Los Angeles, a Spanish-language station.)
“Officially, ’34’ was not retired, but in our hearts, it was retired,” Poole said. “I take pride in the fact that we didn’t release that number. It’s important to me that the Mexican community got something out of it. And he deserves it. He did so many things that brought attention to the community.”
“I think that they took too long to recognize Fernando and to retire his number,” Jarrin said. “It’s something that he really, really deserves, and the community is very, very aware of that, and they are very pleased, very happy. There’s no question about it.”
It has been a long road from the dusty ball fields of Etchohuaquila to the emerald green of Chavez Ravine. Valenzuela returned to the Dodgers in 2004, joining Jarrin in the broadcast booth. Though Jarrin retired in 2022, Valenzuela remains today.
Through it all, Valenzuela, who became an American citizen in 2015, owns a Mexican League team in Cancun and has a stadium named after him in Hermosillo, has rarely taken the time to stop and enjoy the sights. But Friday, when he looks up and sees his No. 34 in the Dodger Stadium rafters, he mused, maybe then it will hit him.
“I don’t like to talk about myself but if what I did helped people, I’m happy, yeah,” Valenzuela said. “It’s great. If a player from Mexico coming up says they have more chance, more opportunity, a good chance to do something in the big leagues, if I did something that helped a little bit, I’m great. You can have the talent and believe in yourself, but you have to take advantage of the opportunity. That makes me feel fine. Feel good.”
And that’s not surprising at all.