Fernando Valenzuela will have his number 34 retired by the Dodgers before Friday night’s game against the Rockies at Dodger Stadium.
It’s a long overdue honor for the left-hander, who unlike all but one of his retired-number brethren is not in the Hall of Fame, but deserving all the same. The Dodgers had effectively retired his number for decades, refusing to issue number 34 after Valenzuela was released in 1991. But now he finally gets the official honor that goes along with it.
To see, or hear, Valenzuela’s impact on the Dodgers, just look in the stands, or listen to the roars he receives when introduced at Dodger Stadium. The cheers for Valenzuela are as loud as anyone, maybe short of revered icon Sandy Koufax but it’s close.
“I don’t know why they waited. They could have done this several years ago,” Hall of Fame broadcaster Jaime Jarrín said in February. “But they are retiring his number. It’s great, it’s great. He belongs there. It’s just fantastic. Now he’ll be there forever.”
A plaque with Jarrín’s name and an image of a microphone is five spots down from where Valenzuela’s number 34 will be affixed to the base of the club level down the left field line at Dodger Stadium. Those two will always be linked, not just for Jarrín calling Valenzuela’s games or for those two broadcasting games together for years. Jarrín also served as Valenzuela’s interpreter as the star pitcher burst onto the scene in 1981.
I was too young to experience Fernandomania at the time, but just the name Fernandomania gives an idea of his impact.
It’s hard to fathom just how incredible his first eight starts were. Pressed into opening day duty in 1981 when Jerry Reuss was injured, Valenzuela shut out the Astros at home. Then he allowed one run to the Giants in a complete game, followed by three more shutouts. He pitched nine innings in each of those first eight starts. Only one wasn’t a complete game, when the Dodgers rallied for five runs in the top of the 10th inning in Montreal to make Valenzuela a winner.
Valenzuela was 8-0 in those first eight starts, with five shutouts. He allowed four runs in total, and adding in his 10 relief appearances in September 1980, during which he allowed only two unearned runs, Valenzuela’s career ERA through his first 89⅔ innings was 0.40. Zero point four zero.
But despite the excellence of that season, in which Valenzuela was the first — and still only — pitcher to win Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award, his best game that year was perhaps his most imperfect.
After the strike in 1981, the baseball playoffs had a divisional round for the first time. Valenzuela allowed six total runs in his first four starts, beating the Astros in Game 4 to even the NLDS, and winning the Game 5 NLCS clincher in Montreal. That lined up Valenzuela for Game 3 of the World Series and, after losing to the Yankees in the Fall Classic in 1977 and 1978, the Dodgers were down 2-0 after the first two games in New York.
Valenzuela wasn’t great in Game 3. He squandered a three-run first inning by the Dodgers offense, and walked seven. He allowed nine hits, including two home runs and two doubles. But Tommy Lasorda kept the faith in his rookie pitcher, and left him in the game. After the Dodgers regained the lead in the fifth inning, Valenzuela allowed only two hits and a walk the rest of the way. After 145 pitches, the Dodgers were back in the series.
By the time I started watching baseball intently, in 1985, Valenzuela was already a fully-formed superstar. He had another incredible April that year, in which he didn’t allow an earned run until the final inning of the month. Valenzuela did allow four unearned runs, but that’s still only five total runs in 42 innings, but due to poor run support he was 2-3 during the month despite his minuscule 0.21 ERA.
It wasn’t the first baseball game I saw in person, but the first major league game I have memory of attending was September 7, 1985, Sock Day at Dodger Stadium with my older brothers to see Dodgers vs. Mets. But much of the buzz at the stadium was still talking about Friday night’s classic duel.
The Mets beat the Dodgers 2-0 in 13 innings, but the story was the matchup between Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden, having the finest pitching season by a 20-year-old in baseball history. The matched zeroes through nine innings, when Gooden’s night ended. But Valenzuela kept going, pitching 11 scoreless innings, the longest outing of his career. He didn’t allow a Met to reach third base in those 11 frames.
“It was one of my very best games,” Valenzuela said after the game, per Gordon Edes of the Los Angeles Times.
Being a workhorse was part of the lore of Valenzuela. He led the league in innings pitched and strikeouts as a 20-year-old rookie, and over his first seven years averaged 255 innings and 207 strikeouts. He finished in the top five in Cy Young voting four times.
He made the All-Star team in the first six of those seasons, and struck out five in a row in 1986 to tie Carl Hubbell’s All-Star Game record.
Injuries began to take their toll in 1988, when Valenzuela was limited by a shoulder injury to 23 starts and knocked him out of the postseason run. His days as a strikeout pitcher were pretty much done by then. Through 1987, he had a 19.6-percent strikeout rate compared to 12.4 percent after.
Though diminished, Valenzuela still had his moments. He played first base at the end of a 22-inning game in Houston in 1989. On June 29, 1990, after former teammate Dave Stewart threw a no-hitter for the A’s in Toronto in a game on ESPN, Valenzuela did the same against the Cardinals at Dodger Stadium, also on ESPN.
Now a bespectacled pitcher, Valenzuela still had his signature look to the heavens in his windup. Old friend Pedro Guerrero was the final batter, grounding up the middle for a double play that finished the no-hitter, prompting Vin Scully to say, “If you have a sombrero, throw it to the sky.”
Valenzuela pitched 204 innings in that season, and from 1981-1990 — his first 10 seasons — his 2,331 innings were second-most in the majors, behind only Jack Morris. Only Morris and Dave Stieb made more starts than Valenzuela’s 320.
The Dodgers released Valenzuela in spring training in 1991, a move I couldn’t fathom at the time. It seemed like a cruel goodbye.
But he soon signed a minor league deal with the Angels, which meant he would at least still be local. Hyperlocal for me, it turned out, since he pitched a game for the Angels’ Class-A team in Palm Springs, where I lived.
I was there to watch Valenzuela pitch, among a crowd that was so eager to see this superstar pitch in the tiny ballpark that shared a parking lot with a library, that a temporary fence was added so an overflow crowd could watch from the outfield warning track. Roughly 6,000 fans were in attendance to see Valenzuela pitch that night in a season that Palm Springs finished last in the California League in attendance, averaging under 1,000 fans per game.
His time with the Angels lasted only two games in the majors, but after a year in Mexico he was back in the majors. He won 13 games for a division-winning Padres team in 1996, but also pitched for the Orioles, Phillies, and Cardinals over his final five years. He was getting by with guile and moxie by then, but that was always part of the Valenzuela package.
No matter how much trouble he was in on the mound, no matter how tired he might have been, there was always the hope Valenzuela would make one more pitch, would throw a tantalizing screwball to escape the jam. More often than not, he did.
Valenzuela captured the hearts of Dodgers fans everywhere, and is an icon for Mexican and Latino fans. He doesn’t have to be a Hall of Famer to deserve having his number retired by the Dodgers. His impact went beyond statistics. Don’t believe me? Just listen to the roar on Friday night at Dodger Stadium.