By IAN WILSON
There were few things left for Fernando Valenzuela to achieve in baseball by the time the 1990s rolled around.
His resumé included a Cy Young Award, Rookie of the Year honours, a pair of Silver Slugger nods, a Gold Glove, a couple of World Series rings, and six National League (NL) All-Star selections.
Not bad for the man from little-known Etchohuaquila, Mexico.
The 5-foot-11, lefthander’s decade of dominance with the Los Angeles Dodgers came to an end, however, when he showed up for spring training in 1991 and the club determined he didn’t have the stuff to stay in the starting rotation. The Dodgers released Valenzuela and his one-year, $2.55-million contract – which was not guaranteed – in a move that stunned his teammates and the baseball world. Shoulder problems had reduced his effectiveness in the late 1980s, but Valenzuela was only 30 years old and he threw a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals on June 29, 1990.
In need of some help on the mound, and in attracting more fans to the ballpark, the California Angels signed Valenzuela. The pudgy-faced pitcher was sent to the minors to work the kinks out of his game. During his only start for the Single-A Palm Springs Angels, he surrendered four hits, two walks and an unearned run in a no decision. From there, Valenzuela was promoted to the Double-A affiliate in Midland, where he impressed in a pair of appearances.
The big club thought Fernando was ready for The Show again.
Making his Angels debut in Anaheim on June 7, 1991, Valenzuela took the mound in front of a then season-high crowd of 49,744 that included 9,356 walkup fans. His performance against the Detroit Tigers was a mixed bag – he yielded nine hits and five runs over five-plus innings, but he also issued no walks and struck out five batters, including fearsome home run hitter Cecil Fielder twice. Angels manager Doug Rader called Valenzuela “excellent” in the 5-0 loss, which was Sparky Anderson’s 1,000th victory as skipper of the Tigers.
The results of his next matchup were far from excellent.
Squaring off against Teddy Higuera and the Milwaukee Brewers in the first Major League Baseball (MLB) matchup between two left-handed pitchers from Mexico, Valenzuela lasted only 1.2 innings and surrendered five runs on five hits in an 8-0 loss.
A trip to the 15-day disabled list followed, after tests revealed abnormal blood flow near Valenzuela’s heart. A series of cardiograms, angiograms and other cardiac tests showed a heart condition that was identified as myocardial bridging of the coronary artery. He was ultimately cleared to play but the Angels had to decide what to do with their 0-2 pitcher who was carrying a 12.15 ERA. His contract guaranteed a payment of $300,000, but incentives could see that climb to $1 million and his presence on the team through July would lead to another substantial pay bump.
Valenzuela was placed on waivers, but the Angels invited him to report to Midland again, which he did. The pitcher who joined the Dodgers as an undrafted free agent and seemingly came out of nowhere was once again in a position where he had to prove that he could play at the MLB level. When he pitched at Double-A in 1980, he showed that he was too good for the Texas League, but now he had to convince people that he was capable of playing there.
Many observers, including sports editor Joe Muench of the El Paso Herald-Post newspaper, thought Valenzuela was done and his travels through the minor leagues were a waste of time.
“He no doubt sees visions of a major-league comeback in his eyes and carries memories of an All-Star pitching career in his heart,” wrote Muench in a column that appeared in the July 13, 1991 edition of the Red Deer Advocate.
“He should have retired …. It’s time to put a period on the storied career of Fernando Valenzuela and let Fernandomania live happily ever after.”
The harsh assessment was ignored by Valenzuela, who went 1-1 in a pair of five-inning starts for sold-out crowds in Midland.
FERNANDOMANIA COMES TO ALBERTA
Valenzuela’s progress was starting to be monitored by the Edmonton Trappers and their supporters, as it became increasingly evident that he would not go gentle into that good night. Indeed, Alberta’s capital was looking more and more like a stepping stone on Valenzuela’s comeback trail.
In late July, Valenzuela’s arrival in Edmonton set off the Canadian edition of Fernandomania.
Edmonton Journal photographer Rick MacWilliam captured an image of Valenzuela at the airport, carrying his bags and sporting aviator sunglasses, while reporter Mark Spector recorded the reaction of his new Trapper teammates to the roster addition for a July 26th story.
“I thought he’d be in the big leagues forever,” said corner infielder Chris Cron, who was in high school in Orange County when Fernandomania swept through the United States.
“Him coming down here to play with me, I’m just excited to meet the guy.”
Second baseman Kevin Davis, who played with Valenzuela in Edmonton and Midland, called the southpaw a “very personable guy” who had his respect.
“But when he steps on the mound, he is deadly serious,” Davis told the Journal.
Pitching coach Gary Ruby couldn’t wait to see what Valenzuela had to offer the other mounds keepers on the Trappers.
“If I was a young pitcher, I’d be in his hip pocket while he’s here,” said Ruby. “I’m going to try and learn everything I can from the guy. It’s no mistake what he’s done in his career.”
At an introductory press conference at the Hilton Hotel, Valenzuela took a simplistic approach to his first tour of Triple-A duty.
“Baseball everywhere is the same. And I like playing baseball, that’s why I am here,” he told Journal staff writer Cam Cole and other members of the media.
“I think this is the last time I’m in the minor leagues … I know I can pitch in the majors again.”
In his agreement with the Angels, Valenzuela was scheduled to remain with the Trappers until Aug. 19th, at which point the parent club would have to decide to call him up or not. If they chose not to add him to the major-league club, he would become a free agent.
Manager Max Oliveras, meanwhile, could barely contain his excitement over Valenzuela, who went 21-11 with the Dodgers in 1986 while registering 20 complete games.
“It’s an honour having him here,” said Oliveras. “I just want to hang around with him today, because everywhere we go in town, it’s freebies … but really, I told him I have to treat him the same as everybody else, and I think that’s what he wants. He’s aware he’s a personality, but he doesn’t want the other players to think he’s being treated special.”
Mel Kowalchuk, the president of the Trappers, called Valenzuela’s appearance the “icing on the cake” of what was shaping up to be a record-breaking season for attendance at John Ducey Park. His biggest problem was not having enough room to accommodate all the baseball fans in the city.
“I just wish we had the new stadium,” he told reporters. “I know we’d sell out at 10,000 and we’d probably do 15,000 if the weather’s good. But I looked at all kinds of ways of cramming more people in, and it just isn’t feasible. We’d have to put seating where the visitors’ bullpen is and we already have very little foul territory. I’d hate to see someone get hurt.”
Kowalchuk and Trapper fans would have to make do with the 6,200 available seats at the ballpark (which was torn down in 1995 and replaced by Telus Field).
Cole reached out to Steve Rogers for his July 27th column on the front page of the Journal sports section about the city’s newest sports celebrity. The former pitcher with the Montreal Expos understood better than most what it was like to try to resurrect your MLB career while playing in Edmonton. Rogers, who was recovering from a shoulder injury, started five games for the Trappers in 1985, his last season of professional baseball.
“I hope people come to the park with the realization that the man they are watching is a craftsman – they are getting an opportunity to watch a guy who, in his prime, could get anyone out. I hope they realize that if he didn’t have an injury, he wouldn’t be pitching in Triple-A ball,” said Rogers.
Everyone was eager to see what Valenzuela could do in his first Pacific Coast League (PCL) contest, including Oliveras, who planned to limit the lefty to 100 pitches and was hoping he’d provide five to six innings of quality pitching.
Valenzuela approached his Monday night matchup against the Tacoma Tigers like he did most of his minor-league starts.
“I hope I can help the team. I’m ready to pitch, but if they hit me pretty good that’s part of the game … there’s really not any pressure for me. In Tulsa there were 14,000. It was no different, nothing special, just another game,” he told Spector.
“They are Triple-A players, and a good team. The hitters have bats in their hands, and they are good hitters. I’ll just go to the mound … no matter what level you play at, you’re playing hard all the time.”
Trapper catcher John Orton, of Santa Cruz, California, also had a basic outlook on his role in the game.
“He’ll basically be calling his own game – I’ve never caught him,” said the 25-year-old.
“It’ll be exciting. It’s something you never thought you’d do, especially when you were younger watching him pitch on TV.”
Come hell or high water, the fans were excited for Valenzuela’s debut.
The water part was not what the soldout crowd wanted to see, but the rain settled in above John Ducey Park as an unwelcome guest nonetheless. The Trapper faithful booed the dark clouds and the tarp that covered the infield, but when the grounds crew got the field ready after a 37-minute delay, they broke into applause.
Wearing the same uniform number 34 that he did with the Dodgers, Valenzuela warmed up under a light rain and looked to be on top of his game early, striking out Eric Fox and Lance Blankenship. The third hitter, Scott Brosius, knocked a single into left field but that was the end of the first-inning threat.
“It’s a lot different than watching him on TV, facing him here … I haven’t seen too many screwballs before, much less a Fernando Valenzuela screwball. He was tricking a lot of guys,” said Brosius, who went on to have an impressive 11-year MLB career with the Athletics and the Yankees.
Brosius struck out in his next two plate appearances.
Cron homered in the bottom of the first and Kent Anderson contributed a two-run double in the fourth that staked the Trappers to a 5-2 lead. Both Tacoma runs came on solo home runs by Dann Howitt and Troy Afenir.
Valenzuela worked 5.2 innings – his final line saw him register seven strikeouts, two walks, six hits and three earned runs. He threw 95 pitches, 57 of them for strikes. Tim Burcham, who gave up his rotation spot for Valenzuela, shut the door the rest of the way and preserved the 5-3 win for the MLB veteran.
“It made me very happy how they reacted when I left the game,” said Valenzuela, who tipped his cap to the cheering crowd as he entered the dugout.
“I needed to work to get back in shape, and this team is letting me do that … they gave me a chance, and I want to thank them for that.”
Added Valenzuela: “I’m very pleased with the way I pitched tonight … that’s a good sign that my arm is coming back.”
The next test for Valenzuela came on the road against the Portland Beavers, but his second start for the Trappers was a rough one. He gave up six runs – all in the second inning – during a 7-3 loss in front of 17,741 fans. Valenzuela lasted only four innings. He walked three batters, struck out four and gave up six hits.
“Command will hurt you, and that’s what happened to Fernando,” Ruby, the pitching coach, told the Journal. “He’s human, he just wasn’t in good rhythm early.”
The return trip to Canada put Valenzuela in a pressure-packed situation.
The Trappers squared off against their provincial rivals, the first-place Calgary Cannons, with Edmonton just two-and-a-half games behind the second-half pennant leaders on Aug. 9th. Valenzuela was opening the home series against his old Dodger teammate, Dennis Powell.
“That kind of makes me push, because I want to beat him. It would be a thrill – it’s like pitching against Nolan Ryan, with all the status that’s behind him,” said Powell, who once had a stall next to Valenzuela at Dodger Stadium.
It was another Jekyll & Hyde performance for Valenzuela, who threw 76 of his 120 pitches for strikes. The good news was he fanned 10 batters and allowed just one walk through seven frames, but the Cannons also cranked out eight hits and manufactured five runs in that time. Calgary doubled their lead in the ninth inning and walked away with a 10-3 win.
“They hit me pretty good in the first inning,” Valenzuela confessed to Spector. “After that I was happy with the way I pitched.”
Down 2-0 in the third inning, Valenzuela allowed a double to Rich Amaral, a single to Dave Brundage, a triple to Tino Martinez and a home run to Pat Lennon. That boosted the Cannons lead to 5-0. Valenzuela then settled down and looked untouchable for his last four innings, sitting down 12 straight batters. Powell also went seven innings and picked up the victory for Calgary.
“I had good location on my fastball, that was the difference,” Valenzuela told the Journal after the game.
“It was the first time in a long time that I threw 120 pitches. Probably since last year … it was only one game, four innings, but it was a good sign.”
Valenzuela didn’t have to wait long for a rematch against Powell and the Cannons. The action shifted to Foothills Stadium in Calgary for a mid-week Battle of Alberta on Aug. 14th.
“Fernando Fever” traveled south down the highway, where Calgary reporters were given the opportunity to chat with Valenzuela about his attempted comeback. The Mexican moundsman discussed his baseball status with Calgary Herald scribe Gyle Konotopetz, and other members of the media, before the game.
“I don’t like to look at the future,” said Valenzuela at a press conference.
“If I don’t make it back (to the big leagues) this is not something bad. I have been very, very lucky to have 11 years in the big leagues. If not, that’s fine. For now, I have to play in the minor leagues. But I don’t need to keep playing. It’s hard for my wife (Linda) now, home alone with my four kids. But she says, ‘Fernando, do what you like to do.’ She knows I’m happy when I play baseball.”
When he was asked about playing in Edmonton, Valenzuela said he enjoyed not having to fend off autograph seekers at the same rate he did in Double-A.
“Edmonton is different but it’s okay. It’s nice because I can leave after the game. In the Texas League, I had to leave early. But I don’t mind. That’s baseball.”
Gary Arthur, vice-president of the Cannons, noted Valenzuela was a marketing dream for both of Alberta’s PCL clubs.
“The whole buzz at the ballpark was different today,” Arthur told the Herald.
“We’re getting a lot of enquiries from people who will be coming to the park for the first time. A man of his stature playing in this park will raise the level of awareness of Triple-A baseball in Calgary.”
The Cannons players, however, were less welcoming.
Five pitches into his start, Valenzuela – and a season-high crowd of 8,065 onlookers – watched Amaral and Brundage clobber balls that cleared the outfield wall. From there, he shut down Calgary’s offence until the sixth inning, when the Cannons struck for three more runs. Valenzuela exited the game with a standing ovation from the opposing crowd and Powell threw a complete game in the 5-1 triumph, his second straight win against his ex-teammate.
NEEDING A WIN
While he had shown glimpses of what he could with the Trappers, Valenzuela remained inconsistent. He was still trying to put it all together when he faced the Tigers in Tacoma, Washington, the same squad he beat in his opening game for Edmonton.
If the Cannons were his kryptonite, the Tigers resembled more of an elixir.
Valenzuela picked his second PCL victory on the road trip, although the warts in his game remained visible. He went six innings and gave up five runs on six hits, while 56 of his 95 pitches went for strikes. Nelson Simmons, the designated hitter for Tacoma, delivered the most potent hit for the home side, a bases-loaded double that tied the game 5-5 in the sixth frame. Valenzuela stopped the bleeding with two Ks and a ground out before calling it a day and handing the ball over to Burcham, who picked up a three-inning save in the 6-5 win.
According to the original plan that Valenzuela mapped out, that Aug. 19th start was to be his last for the Trappers, but he decided to stay with the club and push his playing time beyond his 30-day contract. The call to the majors hadn’t come yet, but Valenzuela and his agent, Tony DeMarco, felt he was nearing a breakthrough.
“Fernando, every time he goes to the mound he’s getting closer to what he would consider satisfactory condition for pitching,” DeMarco told Tim Brown of the Los Angeles Daily News.
“(The Angels) are extending that invitation, the red carpet, to continue pitching at Edmonton … he himself realizes he is more happy with how he pitches every time out. He’s not ready to stop at all. He’s convinced he can do it.”
The Trappers had three weeks remaining on their schedule and MLB rosters increased to 40 players on Sept. 1st, so Valenzuela was hopeful that a callup was still possible. He took a few days to return home to his family in Los Angeles before going back to Alberta to close out the season.
Alas, the top-seeded Cannons were waiting for Valenzuela and they had their own dreams to chase down.
Once again, Calgary got to Valenzuela. This time they were even more savage, lighting him up for eight hits and nine runs before he could register an out in the second inning. Lennon, who went yard against Valenzuela earlier in the season, hit a homer and a double off of the screwball pitcher on his way to hitting for the cycle. The final result was ugly: 19-10 for the Cannons. Mercifully, Valenzuela avoided being tagged with the loss when Edmonton mounted a mid-game comeback that ultimately fell short.
“These guys have seen him three times now. They know him pretty well,” said Trapper shortstop Gary DiSarcina after the embarrassing display at John Ducey Park.
“But you still have to make good pitches, I guess.”
Despite the blowout, Valenzuela had no interest in packing up his gear.
“What can I say? I’ll never quit. I want to keep trying and get ready for next start,” he told the Journal.
“I don’t think today’s game was good, but I don’t want to stop right there. One of the reasons for coming back to finish with the team is that I think I probably needed a little bit more (work). I want to keep my arm busy and keep in shape.”
With each outing, Valenzuela’s time in the PCL was looking more and more like a fool’s errand.
ONCE MORE INTO THE FRAY
His seventh and final start for the Trappers came against the Vancouver Canadians in Edmonton.
Unsurprisingly, it was a game of pros and cons for Valenzuela, who lasted seven innings and gave up just one run in a 3-1 win for the Trappers. The downside, in addition to a fastball that was clocked at just 81 miles per hour, was that Valenzuela gave up eight hits to the worst-hitting team in the league. Spector described it as a “nervous performance that won’t have scouts doing back flips.”
Ruby called it his “best outing of the year, by far,” adding: “they didn’t get very many good swings off him. I wouldn’t count him as buried by any stretch now. He’s still got lots of arm left.”
Valenzuela determined it was a better outing than his previous start and immediately ruled out retirement.
“I’m finished my work for 1991. I’ll go home, relax, and get away from this game for a while,” he told Spector.
“I still think next year I’ll be with somebody.”
His final line with the Trappers didn’t scream September promotion: seven starts, 3-3 record, 7.12 ERA, 36.2 innings, 36 Ks, 48 hits, 17 bases on balls, and nine homers given up.
There were no complaints from the Trappers, however, who set a team attendance record by welcoming 252,813 fans through the turnstiles. Valenzuela and visiting major-league stars like Sandy Alomar Jr. and Albert Belle helped generate eight sellouts at John Ducey Park, the smallest stadium in the PCL. It was a season that helped bolster the case for a new ballpark in Edmonton.
CALL IT A COMEBACK
And that was that. Valenzuela was released from his minor-league contract on Sept. 9th. He returned to L.A. and the book on his MLB playing career was closed.
Wait … what? Don’t roll the credits just yet. As it turns out, baseball’s experts who told Valenzuela to stop gracing the mound were wrong.
The Detroit Tigers signed Valenzuela in 1992, but he opted to play for the Jalisco Charros in the Mexican League instead, where he went 10-9 with a 3.86 ERA. The home cooking seemed to do the trick.
Turns out Valenzuela had plenty left in the tank. He played 32 games for the Baltimore Orioles in 1993, going 8-10 with a 4.94 ERA. He was also named the American League Pitcher of the Month in July.
An abbreviated season with the Philadelphia Phillies followed and the passed over pitcher really hit his stride with the San Diego Padres between 1995 and 1997. Valenzuela appeared in 75 contests for the Friars, turning in a record of 23-19 and a 4.22 ERA. The Padres dealt him, along with Phil Plantier and Scott Livingstone, to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Mark Sweeney, Danny Jackson and Rich Batchelor in June of 1997.
That was the final stop for Valenzuela, who was released by the Cards a month later.
After he left Edmonton, inspiring little confidence that he would be back in the majors again, Valenzuela played in 120 MLB games, racking up 32 wins and 310 Ks along the way.
He didn’t have anything left to prove by that point, but he did anyway.