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Fernando Valenzuela started opening day for the Dodgers in 1988, but injuries and ineffectiveness limited the highest paid pitcher in baseball to his worst season to date.
While exhilarating, in many ways the success of the 1988 Dodgers was also bittersweet because the ultimate celebration came without the team's two biggest stars of the 1980s. Pedro Guerrero was hurt and eventually traded in August, and Fernando Valenzuela was ineffective and experienced a physical setback for the first time in his career.
It's hard to fathom just how good Valenzuela was to start his career. Not only was he 8-0 with five shutouts after his first eight major league starts, but he pitched nine innings in each of those first eight starts. Factor in his 17⅔ innings in relief without an earned run out of the bullpen in September 1980, and his start was even more remarkable. Valenzuela's career ERA on May 14, 1981 was 0.40, with four earned runs allowed in 89⅔ innings.
Fernandomania was real, and it took Los Angeles by storm. Valenzuela kept it going for seven full seasons, and entered the 1988 campaign as a full-fledged superstar. Valenzuela was on the mound to start 1988 for the Dodgers, the sixth opening day start of his career, trailing only the seven made by both Don Drysdale and Don Sutton in Dodgers franchise history.
But by the end of the season, Valenzuela was forced to watch from the dugout as his team won it all.
How acquired: The Dodgers signed Valenzuela out of the Mexican League on July 6, 1979, and in just over a year was pitching in the big leagues in the bullpen in a pennant race.
Prior MLB experience: Valenzuela was an absolute workhorse for the first seven years of his career. After leading the majors with 192⅓ innings in a strike-shortened rookie campaign en route to the Cy Young Award and a World Series win, Valenzuela pitched no fewer than 251 innings each year from 1982-1987. Nobody in the majors from 1981-1987 faced more batters (7,413), had more strikeouts (1,448) or walks (659) than Valenzuela, and his 1,788 innings and 111 wins during that span were second only to Jack Morris. Valenzuela's 3.11 ERA during his first seven seasons was second to Nolan Ryan, and Fernando's 115 ERA+ was tied for sixth among pitchers with 1,000 innings.
Valenzuela led the National League in complete games in both 1986 (20) and 1987 (12), and led the league in batters faced in 1984, 1986, and 1987.
1988 age: 27
1988 stats: At $2.05 million, Valenzuela was baseball's highest paid pitcher. But he had by far his worst season, going 5-8 with a 4.24 ERA in 23 games, including 22 starts. Valenzuela had 76 walks and just 64 strikeouts in 142⅓ innings. He had more strikeouts than walks in just five of his 23 appearances.
After making 255 consecutive starts to open his career, Valenzuela was shelved for the first time as he missed most of the final two months of the season on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury. Valenzuela was at odds with his manager on whether or not he was hurt all season, per Sam McManis of the Los Angeles Times:
"I've had a bad year," Valenzuela said. "It's not my arm. In the beginning of the season, I needed more time to warm up, but I didn't feel anything until the last start."
Manager Tom Lasorda said he had suspicions about the state of Valenzuela's arm.
"I always felt that way, that something was wrong," Lasorda said. "But he would never tell you because he's such a tremendous competitor. It's good to know, though, that we're able to take care of him. The longer he pitched with it, the more injurious it is to his health.
Regular season game of the year: Valenzuela started the Dodgers' division-clinching game on Sept. 26 in San Diego, but lasted just three innings in his first game back after missing eight weeks. His best game probably came on Apr. 24 in San Francisco, when Valenzuela pitched 7⅔ scoreless innings to beat the Giants.
NLCS & World Series performance: Valenzuela made it back from injury in time to make one regular season start and pitch another four innings in relief, but the left-hander was left off the postseason roster and reduced to a spectator against the Mets and Athletics.
Post-1988 playing career: Valenzuela returned to health and pitched 400⅔ combined innings in 1989-1990. He was 23-26 with a 4.02 ERA, an 89 ERA+ over those two seasons, but authored a no-hitter on June 29, 1990 against the Cardinals.
Valenzuela was released at the end of spring training in 1991, and though he signed with the Angels he appeared in just two games with a 12.15 ERA in Anaheim. He signed with the Tigers in 1992 but was lent to the Mexican League and spent all season with Jalisco. Valenzuela returned to the majors in 1993 with the Orioles, pitched for the Phillies in 1994, and moved to the Padres after that. Valenzuela's best post-Dodgers year came in 1996 with the division winners in San Diego, as he was 13-8 with a 3.61 ERA in 33 games, including 31 starts. Valenzuela was sent by the Padres to the Cardinals in a six-player trade in July 1997, and ended his career with five starts for St. Louis.
After 1988 Valenzuela was 55-63 with a 4.30 ERA, a 91 ERA+, with 546 strikeouts and 411 walks in 982 innings, including 32-37 with a 4.49 ERA, a 93 ERA+, with 315 strikeouts and 236 walks in 581⅓ innings after leaving the Dodgers.
Where he is now: Valenzuela still counts Dodger Stadium as his office, as 2013 will be his 11th season as an analyst on the Dodgers' Spanish language radio broadcast, alongside Jaime Jarrin and Pepe Yniguez.
Since he left the team after the 1990 season, no Dodger has worn Valenzuela's number 34. The Dodgers have an unofficial policy or only retiring uniform numbers of players and managers in the Hall of Fame, with Jim Gilliam the only exception. As great as Valenzuela was, he will not make it to Cooperstown. Yet nobody is allowed to wear number 34.
Valenzuela's impact, both on and off the field, to the Dodgers was great enough that he deserves to have his number officially retired by the team. It's silly that the team has essentially already retired the number without giving Valenzuela the honor of making it official. Make it happen, Dodgers.