The Dodgers before Sunday’s game introduced Fernando Valenzuela to the crowd after a pair of highlight videos played recounting his remarkable achievements, two days after the 40th anniversary of his first major league start in 1981, the beginning of Fernandomania.
Legend.— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) April 11, 2021
This year, the Dodgers celebrate the 40th anniversary of Fernandomania, a magical rookie season that meant so much to many. pic.twitter.com/o1xzsJgGil
But as Valenzuela was surrounded by his family next to the Dodgers dugout, as they said in unison, “It’s time for Dodger baseball” to kick off the start of Sunday’s game, a glance up at the retired uniform numbers along the base of the club level down the left field line at Dodger Stadium showed no new reveal. No gap to add a new number.
The Dodgers’ unofficial policy is that they only retire uniform numbers of Hall of Fame players, which is a fine sentiment but certainly open to exceptions. For instance, Mike Piazza was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2016, but here we are five years later and his number 31 still hasn’t been retired by the Dodgers — seven people have worn it since he left — because of a pissing contest between Piazza and the team over his acrimonious departure in 1998.
Only nine of the 10 retired numbers are players or managers inducted into Cooperstown, plus Jim Gilliam, whose number 19 is retired after an excellent career as a player in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, then as a coach before his untimely death before the 1978 World Series.
Gilliam was a favorite of owner Walter O’Malley, but it shouldn’t take a tragedy to change precedent.
Valenzuela said he wore number 34 because that was the uniform that was in his locker when he was called up to the majors in September 1980. He kept wearing it for the Dodgers, when he won Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award, through six All-Star Games, while pitching a no-hitter, and as a part of two World Series winners, all while captivating a fanbase as the Dodgers’ biggest-ever star from Mexico.
The Dodgers released Valenzuela at the end of spring training in 1991, and they haven’t issued number 34 to anyone since. For 30 years, Valenzuela’s number has been functionally retired. But not officially.
“For me it would be nice, but for right now I don’t see anyone wearing that number,” Valenzuela said Saturday. “If anybody wants to wear it, it’s fine. If somebody is asking for that number, no problem. I know it’s going to happen sooner or later, but who knows?”
Valenzuela’s impact on the Dodgers is immense, and he remains in the family as an announcer for the team. He is one of the most beloved members in the organization’s history, evident by the goosebump-inducing roar any time he is mentioned at Dodger Stadium.
Number 34 is already retired in practice. But the Dodgers need to make it official, and give Fernando Valenzuela the pomp and circumstance he richly deserves.