Fernando Valenzuela is sitting in a booth at Dodger stadium above right field. Across his field of view are the Dodgers’ retired numbers — 1, 2, 4, 19, 20, 24, 32, 39, 42, 53. Any Angelino can make the easy argument that his No. 34 should be there right with the names of Drysdale, Robinson, and Koufax. No one has worn it since, though it’s not officially retired. And as deserving of a gesture that would be for the legendary Dodgers pitcher with a no-hitter and a World Series to his name, his impact and legacy to the franchise is already seen in the people making their way to the stadium.
The day prior, the Dodgers had a doubleheader where both games celebrated Mexican heritage. Fans switched the traditional Dodger blue for red, white, and green variants. A mariachi played music making the scene almost indistinguishable from a Mexican family party from a nearby East LA, save for the baseball game taking place in the middle of it all. It’s a microcosm of Latinx makeup of the fanbase, a lot of which is due to Valenzuela’s meteoric rise as a pitcher in the 1980s.
His pitching is the stuff of legends, even for the most casual baseball fan. His first year as a Dodger saw the 20-year old win National Leage Rookie of the Year. Ten years later, he bookended his tenure in LA with a no-hitter, remarkably the second one in the league that evening.
Valenzuela continued his MLB journey for seven more years, though he wasn’t able to replicate his efficiency from his time in Chavez Ravine. Yet, the six-time All-Star has no regrets.
“I think from everything that has happened to me in my career, I wouldn’t change anything,” he says in Spanish. “I often get asked ‘Would you have pitched less to have a longer career?’ But if you’re thinking that way as a pitcher, you will only mentally prepare yourself for that one thing.”
Aside from his stellar resumé as a Dodger, Valenzuela has also served as a color commentator alongside Jaime Jarrín, who is retiring at the end of the season. Jarrín has been the Spanish-speaking voice baseball fans have listened to for 64 years. Jarrín’s institutional knowledge of covering games is something that Valenzuela appreciates now and when he first jumped into commentary.
“I know baseball, but I appreciate that he had patience with me and I think that’s what kept me going as a broadcaster,” Valenzuela says. “I think that’s where I’m going to miss him the most. He gave me a sense of confidence that only someone with his experience can provide.”
Now 61, Valenzuela looks back and understands that while his teenage self had the talent to throw in the major leagues, the fact that it happened is something that may not have been in his control. It all took place before he was even able to make the conscious effort to pursue baseball.
“You’ll have to wait for the book,” he jokes. “I started playing at 13 years old but it didn’t really draw my attention. My brothers always played and I always said, ‘sure I’ll go play’. They never told me that I had to go, but seeing them go out there made me think ‘hey it looks like they’re having a lot of fun’ and a career came out of that.”
For both his playing and broadcasting careers, El Toro continually credits others for his success, especially his wife because while baseball can provide a sense of consistency, everything around the sport is always in flux.
“You’re always going from one place to another. That’s a time in your life when it’s difficult and you need to adapt, not just me but the people around me,” he says. “They ask me ‘how long have you been married for?’ I say 42, but my wife says ‘no it’s more like 20.’”
Fernando’s last professional game was in 2006 for Los Aguilas de Mexicali.
No matter where he was in his life and in his career, Fernando Valenzuela chalks it all up to a combination of factors that anyone, baseball fan or not, can learn from.
“For something to happen, there needs to be dedication. That’s the most important thing,” Valenzuela says. “You can be the most talented person in the world but if you don’t know how to use it or don’t know when to use it, it won’t happen.”