HOW I ENDED UP BEING FERNANDO VALENZUELA’S HOMIE 40 YEARS AGO
Wow! How time flies. It’s been 40 years since Los Angeles (and the Chicanada throughout the country) was mesmerized by Fernandomania. Hard to believe so much time has evaporated so quickly. Think of all you’ve done and all you’ve encountered since the ancient date of 1981. That was the year a seemingly nondescript teenaged mexicano pitcher named Fernando Valenzuela joined the Los Angeles Dodgers and proceeded to create an earthquake-sized phenomenon of achievement, excitement and luminosity the likes of which hadn’t been seen before—and in some ways still hasn’t been equaled. (We all have a Fernando story; I’ll relate mine in a bit.)
The Dodgers organization and the city of Los Angeles are delirious right now, celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Fernandomania. Lots of events and celebrations (some of them via Zoom) are in the works.
Forty years ago it seemed Valenzuela’s astonishing success on the mound and the electricity it generated in the city was all anyone was talking about – at the grocery store, at the Post Office, in the office, on the assembly line, and at parties. Everyone. Everywhere.
Fernandomania was amazing and it was real. No doubt about it. The Latino community beamed with pride. And, not so incidentally, it helped Mexican Americans/Chicanos overcome lingering animosity toward the institution of The Los Angeles Dodgers. Resentment had been festering since the 1950s when Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley and the city fathers made the largely clandestine deals to carve a stadium out of the Mexican communities of La Loma, Palo Verde and Bishop (collectively referred to as “Chavez Ravine.”) My family lived there when I was an infant.
The Legacy of the Displacement of Mexican Communities for Dodger Stadium
In the 1960s and 1970s the memories were fresh of bulldozers and L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies with shotguns forcing Mexican families out of their homes so Dodger Stadium could be build—partly at taxpayers’ expense. Many Mexicans vowed never to step inside Dodger Stadium. Let’s be honest: the arrival of Fernando Valenzuela and his Superman-like heroics on the field opened the doors of the stadium to many once-grumbling Mexican American baseball fans.
That reality is poignantly recalled by Eric Nusbaum in his excellent book “Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers and the Lives Caught in Between.” Of the impact of Fernandomania Nusbaum writes eloquently: “Valenzuela, a shy and confounding left-hander from a small down in Sonora, did more than anybody else to realize O’Malley’s dreams for what his stadium could be: always full and guaranteed to please, no matter what happened on the field, a place for true civic communication. In the 1980s Dodger Stadium became Valenzuela’s stage. He elevated the franchise, the sport, and the city, then transcended them all.”
Valenzuela’s arrival on the scene did much to paper over some of the lingering ill-feelings of the Mexican American community, but not all of them. Nusbaum writes: “To some people, Fernandomania was the bookend that the story (of the uprooting of the Chavez Ravine families) needed. As if because Fernando drew Mexican fans to the ballpark, the scars simply faded away and then disappeared like some trick of magical realism. No matter how much the city loved its baseball team or its ballpark, the scars couldn’t disappear. Baseball may have mystical powers but it cannot erase the past. It cannot redeem us.”
Yet, that’s not to say the Fernando Valenzuela craze of 40 years ago wasn’t a monstrous phenomenon that positively touched so many people, Latino, white, Black, Asian y lo que sea. Most of us have a Fernando story. I offer mine here.
Back in the Pleistocene Era (also known as the 1980s and 1990s) I was a general assignment reporter for KNX Newsradio, the CBS Los Angeles all-news station. In those days the radio station would select someone for “Man of the Year” or “Woman of the Year” honors – along the lines of what Time Magazine has been doing since, well, forever.
The Big Day During Fernandomania
In 1982 the management of KNX selected Fernando Valenzuela as Los Angeles “Man of the Year.” Fernandomania was still raging and consuming Southern California. The event included a big bash luncheon at a fancy hotel, with lots of L.A.’s dignitaries and Hollywood celebrities in attendance. Since I was the only reporter at the station who spoke Spanish, the general manager picked me to be the “liaison” and elbow-to-elbow host to accompany Fernando to the event. I was to serve as his guide and interpreter for the whole day. (And I was mindful of the clock, since I had a plane ticket to fly to Chuhuahua, Mexico that night.) As part of the whole enchilada, the Los Angeles City Council declared that date Fernando Valenzuela Day!
On the big day, Fernando Valenzuela Day, a limo picked me up and then we headed to Valenzuela’s home to pick him up. (I’m from Lincoln Heights and riding in limos was something I didn’t do every day.) I accompanied Fernando to the luncheon, served as his translator and generally had a good time with him. (I got to ask him about his perfecting of the screwball and I regaled him with my exploits as a spectacularly mediocre infielder for Lincoln High School; a school that later produced a Los Angeles Dodger, Bobby Castillo. Castillo, as it turned out, was instrumental in Fernando’s successful finesse with the screwball.)
There were bright lights at the luncheon and lots of speeches praising Fernando. Most of them were in English. Valenzuela seemed to take it all in good- naturedly. However, he did seem like someone whose tie was too tight and who just might have longed to be somewhere else. After all the speeches and all the photos, Fernando Valenzuela and I got back into the limousine. The limo dropped him off and then unceremoniously dropped me off. I think the driver at least slowed down to let me out at my pad on L.A.’s Eastside.
Then the day and the tale got interesting.
Heading to Chihuahua on Fernando Valenzuela Day
Later that day I hopped on a plane and headed to Ciudad Chihuahua in the border state of Chihuahua. (Chihuahua state nestles uncomfortably against the state of Texas.) On landing in the capital city, I then hopped on a Tres Estrellas bus (the Mexican equivalent of Greyhound) and made the two-hour trip to the tiny town of Parral. It’s the town where Pancho Villa was gunned down during the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. I had gone there to do a kind of a scouting expedition; I was planning to eventually take my mother back to the rural region of Mexico where she grew but hadn’t returned since the days of the Revolution. She left when she was about five years old and had never been back. I was there to case the joint for her possible return trip.
So, after I checked into the cramped but clean and tidy hotel in Parral, I went to the bar in the center of town. Remember, this is in 1982. The bar was something that looked like a small wooden barn. Strikingly, it had a huge satellite dish on the roof (remember those?) It just about covered the entire roof.
Inside, I had a beer and struck up a conversation with a couple of locals. My Spanish is serviceable, but I grew up in L.A. and the pocho in me was clearly radiating among the mexicanos I was elbow-to-elbow with. Let’s just say I was quite obviously an out-of-towner.
We got on well, talking mostly about baseball and the traffic on L.A.’s freeways. Then I looked up and saw the TV. It was broadcasting a game live, straight from Dodger Stadium in the city I’d just left a few hours ago. And guess who was on the mound? Right. None other than Fernando Valenzuela!
I couldn’t help myself, so I told the two guys next to me about the “Fernando Valenzuela Day” I’d been a small part of. I saw disbelief on their faces but it then morphed into a bizarre look of vicarious pride. Soon, they were pretty jazzed and they wanted to know “what’s he really like.” Practically the entire crowd in the bar gathered around us, peppering me with questions about my homie, Fernando. By the end of the night I was being saluted as a mini-celebrity in my own right. My new homies get urging their friends to gather around to meet me, el más amigo de Fernando Valenzuela en Los Angeles. “Fernando Valenzuela’s best friend in Los Angeles.” It was wacky. I remember it fondly. At least I have a tale to tell my grandkids some day.
Copyright 2021 by Luis Torres. Torres is a veteran journalist. He is at work on a biography of political pioneer Gloria Molina. Photo of Fernando Valenzuela copyrighted by Jim Accordino, used under Wikipedia Creative Commons license (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fernando_Valenzuela_in_bullpen.jpg) No changes in photo were made. Photos of KNX and Luis Torres in Chihuahua courtesy of the author. Doger stadium photo in the public domain.