It hardly feels like it, especially when looking at Valenzuela today, nary a gray hair on his head, or a line on his 45-year-old face. In fans' minds, the memory of El Toro is still quite fresh, as evidenced by the ovation that Valenzuela received when he was introduced as a coach for Mexico's team during the recent World Baseball Classic.
Then you take a harder look at the time. In 1981, the Internet was stuff of sci-fi books. Mobile phones were only seen at the bottom of a shoe during reruns of Get Smart. ESPN and MTV were in their infancy, their existence in a household as rare as a color TV was in the 1950s.
Into the picture stepped a Mexican left-hander who was just five months past his 20th birthday and only communicated publicly in Spanish. And he fulfilled a wish from a certain owner who had brought the Dodgers west from their Brooklyn roots.
Dodger owner Walter O'Malley would often mention that he wanted a "Mexican Sandy Koufax" to join the organization and help tap the growing Hispanic population in Los Angeles. While he did not live to see Valenzuela look to the sky before throwing his signature screwball (O'Malley died in 1979), his dream was realized when Fernandomania captured the city.
"It's true, he told me many times," said Dodger Hall of Fame Spanish broadcaster Jaime Jarrín of conversations with O'Malley about his wish for a Mexican Koufax. "It was part serious, part in jest. More jest than serious. He knew that it would be difficult to find another Sandy Koufax. Well, Fernando Valenzuela came along to answer a wish and have a season like any of the best years that Sandy Koufax had."
Looking back, it's almost mythic what Valenzuela did. In his first eight games of the 1981 season, Valenzuela threw seven complete-game victories (he threw nine innings in the eighth victory, which the Dodgers won in 10 innings while Valenzuela was still pitcher of record), and had five shutouts among those victories. To add some modern-day perspective, the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves each won their respective divisions last year and each had eight complete games as a team over the entire year. His numbers over that magical run were four runs allowed over 72 innings for an ERA of 0.50.
|Observations on Fernandomania|
Teammates were enthralled by Fernandomania just as much as the fans. Here are some of their remembrances:
Tommy Lasorda, Dodgers manager
Dusty Baker, outfielder
Rick Monday, outfielder
Reggie Smith, outfielder
Bobby Castillo, reliever who taught Valenzuela the screwball
"It was a great start to my career," said Valenzuela, now a member of the Dodgers' Spanish broadcast team. "I think it helped me to start out with a team that had many veterans who had played together for many years. Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Dusty Baker and Steve Yeager, they all helped and supported me that year. In this game, you have to play like a team in order to win games. You can't win games on your own. We won together."
What started with that emergency Opening Day start on April 9, 1981 made history and changed the face of Dodger Stadium. While the Dodgers were the first team to draw 3 million fans and reigned as the leader in attendance, the audience began to have a more Hispanic leaning. Matador music was played on the organ after particularly big strikeouts, a tribute to his nickname, El Toro.
"I truly believe that there is no other player in Major League baseball history who created more new baseball fans than Fernando," said Jarrín. "Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Joe DiMaggio, even Babe Ruth didn't. Fernando turned so many people from Mexico, Central America, South America into fans. Fernando created interest in baseball among people who didn't care about baseball."
Jarrín backed up this statement with some stats. In 1980, 8 percent of the Dodgers' total attendance was of Hispanic origin. In 2005, it was 42 percent.
"Having all the people from the Hispanic community, and really all the communities in Los Angeles, that gave me such a lift," Valenzuela said. "Knowing that the people are there waiting to see what could happen next, that's one of the things that I always enjoyed. People didn't expect anything, but to be able to see the emotion and the excitement when I had a great game, that's all I could ever ask for."
The fan frenzy that surrounded Fernandomania was incredible. Even more incredible was how Valenzuela remained calm while everything around him was doing a great imitation of the Beatles sightings in the 60s.
The crush of fans was tremendous, and not just in Los Angeles. Wherever the Dodgers traveled, a press conference would have to be set up at the start of each series to satisfy all the media requests that were pouring in nationally.
"The interviews and requests to be on shows, that was difficult to get used to," Valenzuela said. "I was never used to talking so much to the press and there were so many interviews. When I was on the mound, I knew what I could do. Looking back at everything that was going on, even with how difficult it was to handle the media requests, I do have great memories from that year."
Jarrín, then in his 23rd year broadcasting the Dodgers, quickly was asked to act as Valenzuela's interpreter from the second game on. The two were side by side as the media bombarded them with questions.
"At that time, the training room was not off limits to the media like it is today," Jarrín said. "The media would go in there even though Fernando was icing his shoulder after the game. They would immediately begin asking him questions.
"Fernando took those questions and never fanned the fire that some reporters were trying to build. He never complained or did anything that in any way would detract from the team. He was the same professional through to his last pitch in the Major Leagues."
Jarrín pointed to two memories among many that showed a reach of Fernandomania. On a May flight into Montreal for the first series between foes who would eventually wage a classic October clash, Jarrín talked about what he expected.
"I told Fernando, 'We're going to a city where they speak more French than English,'" Jarrín said. "It's going to be much calmer here. We land in Montreal and I see a newspaper in the airport. There is the photo of Fernando, not on the sports page, but on the front page. It was incredible."
Later in Chicago on June 6, Valenzuela lasted just 3.1 innings before being pulled after allowing seven runs. At the end of the game, someone came up to Jarrín with a unique request.
"Someone from the Cubs came to me and asked that Fernando come out to the field and wave to the fans," Jarrín said. "I asked him why, as Fernando had gotten knocked out early. He said, 'They keep chanting, Fernando! Fernando! Fernando!' They wouldn't leave."
The people around Valenzuela marveled at the attention, and his lack of a reaction.
"The thing that was incredible about Fernandomania is that no matter where we went, everyone wanted to come out and see this guy pitch," Dodgers Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda said. "Every ballpark we went to they wanted to see this lefty pitcher who looked up in the sky. I still don't know how he did that."
What he ended up doing was going 13-7 on the year with a 2.49 ERA and a league-leading 180 strikeouts. He ended up winning the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award, still the only player in baseball history to win both awards in the same year.
Valenzuela would go on to pitch brilliantly in the postseason, winning three times, including one of the guttiest performances in World Series history, where Valenzuela stared down the Yankees while he was down 4-3 in the score and behind two games in the Series. Valenzuela righted himself to not allow another run and win, 5-4, after throwing 147 pitches. He would go on to be one of the dominant pitchers in baseball through much of the 1980s.
"People ask me all the time when am I going to sign another Fernando Valenzuela," said Dodger scout Mike Brito, who signed Valenzuela in 1978. "I tell them, 'After they find another Clark Gable.' What Fernando did is once in a lifetime."
Jorge Martin is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.