On Tuesday, Clayton Kershaw hurt his back lifting weights. On Wednesday, the possibility arose that he might not be able to start LA’s first game of the season, as planned. On Thursday, Kershaw was placed on the IL and his replacement, Dustin May, became only the second rookie to take the mound on opening day in the 137-year-history of the Dodgers franchise—and the first since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981.
There are some differences between May and Valenzuela. May, 6-foot-6 and 180 pounds, was drafted in the third round out of high school in Texas. Coming into the season, MLB.com ranked him as the Dodgers second-best prospect, and 23rd in all of baseball. He made 14 appearances for Los Angeles last year, including four starts, and struck out more than six hitters for every walk while posting a 3.63 ERA.
Valenzuela, in contrast, was all but unknown going into 1981, even after having come up to the Dodgers as a call-up the previous September and throwing 17 scoreless innings out of the bullpen. At that point he had 30 professional appearances under his belt, none above Double-A.
They are both physically unique. In addition to his size, May’s enormous shock of bright red curls is almost reminiscent of an Irish Oscar Gamble.
Valenzuela, in turn, was notable for his utter lack of affectation. His scissor-straight, pitch-black hair, hanging in the Mayo style of his village, spilled down from under his cap. His physique was … unathletic. Fernando gave no regard to anything but pitching—which he did exceptionally well.
While May looked dominant at times yesterday, hitting 100 mph with his fastball, he gave up seven hits (including a bunt against the shift) to a woeful Giants offense, allowing runners into scoring position in three of the five innings in which he appeared while failing to last long enough to qualify for the win.
In his first Opening Day start, Fernando barely hit 90 … and threw a complete-game shutout against the defending division champs.
Really, this is all just a crutch for me—comparing two pitchers with markedly few comparison points—to excerpt Valenzuela’s introduction from They Bled Blue. After Fernando’s first eight starts, he was 8-0 with a 0.50 ERA, having pitched nine innings every time out. By that point, Fernandomania was in full bloom.
We may yet see Maymania, or Dustin Maynia, or whatever tag gets affixed to the phenom. In the meantime, it’s nice to remember some dominance of years past.
From They Bled Blue:
The guy standing on the mound at Dodger Stadium on opening day was not the guy the Dodgers wanted standing on the mound at Dodger Stadium on opening day. The home team faced pressure aplenty without having to consider an emergency starter in the very first game of the 1981 season, let alone it being a 20-year-old with all of 17 innings of big league experience under his belt, every one of them out of the bullpen.
At that point, LA’s pitching concerns were more akin to triage than anything resembling strategy. This was the Dodgers, for crying out loud, the closest thing to a pitching factory that baseball had known since way back in the Brooklyn days of Drysdale and Newcombe and Sandy Freaking Koufax. One might assume immunity to this sort of dilemma. Nope. Their previous game—the one-and-out playoff against Houston that closed the 1980 campaign—had hinged on just this kind of drama. Hell, it even included the same opponent currently in town to christen the new season, almost as if baseball’s schedulers wanted to help Los Angelinos clear their palates as expediently as possible. Whether that was achievable remained to be seen.
The Dodgers were already without Don Sutton, now pitching for Houston. Left-hander Jerry Reuss, coming off an All-Star campaign, was ready to slide into Sutton’s slot atop the rotation, but in the final workout before opening day pulled a calf muscle so severely that he ended up sidelined for the first 10 games of the season.
Lasorda would have bumped up the next guy, but Burt Hooton, thinking he had an additional day to recover, had undergone a procedure to remove an ingrown toenail and was forced to sit. Number 3 starter Bob Welch was tending a bone spur in his elbow that would cost him three games. Dave Goltz and third-year pitcher Rick Sutcliffe had just closed the exhibition schedule with Freeway Series starts against the Angels.
This is how Fernando Valenzuela came to be pulled aside by team brass shortly after reaching the ballpark and told that he was about to become the first rookie pitcher to start on opening day in the 98-year history of the franchise.
Valenzuela’s ascent the previous autumn had been the main reason Lasorda’s decision about who to start in the playoff against the Astros was anything but pro forma. The left-hander had debuted only three weeks earlier, on September 15, jumping from Double-A straight to the majors, and failing to yield an earned run over 17⅔ innings of relief work covering 10 appearances. It was impressive, but the kid was fresh out of Mexico and still a teenager, for crying out loud. More importantly, the last time he started a game the opponent had been the Amarillo Gold Sox. An elimination contest against the class of the National League would be a hell of a spot for Valenzuela’s premiere. So Goltz was tabbed, it ended badly, and now Lasorda had a chance to see what he’d missed out on six months earlier.
Valenzuela was a physical curiosity, with chubby cheeks and rotund belly, his Mayan features accentuated by bushy black hair spilling straight down from his cap. Wrote Jim Murray in the following day’s Los Angeles Times: “He is, how shall we say it—he is—well, he’s fat, is what he is.” Fernando did not disappoint. The guy who ended the 1980 campaign without ceding an earned run over his final 52⅔ innings, majors and minors combined, began 1981 precisely the same way. In a performance that belied his carriage, the left-hander tantalized Houston’s roster inning after inning, giving up assorted singles and not much else. By the time he struck out Dave Roberts in the ninth—with a screwball of all things—Valenzuela had thrown 106 pitches, and also a complete-game, five-hit, 2–0 shutout. The 50,511 fans crowding Dodger Stadium could hardly believe what they’d seen. A day earlier the pitcher had been so in the dark about the possibility of drawing this assignment that he threw batting practice. Now he spun gold. Fernando, too young to legally buy a beer, was seemingly beyond distraction.
“We don’t know what’s going on inside him,” marveled Dodgers second baseman Davey Lopes after the game, an understandable sentiment given his new teammate’s language barrier. “All he does is smile.”
“He wasn’t one bit nervous,” catcher Mike Scioscia informed the press. “He’s so cool out there, I don’t think he even broke a sweat.”
The thing about Valenzuela wasn’t that he was an unknown pitcher making his first major league start on the early season’s biggest stage. It wasn’t that he spoke virtually no English, necessitating Spanish-language broadcaster Jaime Jarrín to translate for him at nearly every turn. It wasn’t that as a kid from the dusty plains of Mexico he had not yet adapted to life in Los Angeles. It was not his pudgy cheeks, or his stomach bulging over his belt, or the unique hitch in his delivery in which, with his lead leg lifted, he gazed skyward while clasping his hands above his head. It was not his habit of constantly blowing chewing-gum bubbles, sometimes in the middle of his windup. It was not that he was a 20-year-old who looked to be in his middle thirties. It was not even that he was left-handed, or that his out-pitch was a flippin’ screwball.
It was all of it together, a full package containing mystery (The guy barely talks!), comedy (That belly! That haircut! That form!) and straight-up befuddlement (How does he do nothing but win?). Baseball had seen its share of flashing mound talent over recent years—Mark Fidrych in 1976, Vida Blue in ’71—but nobody quite captured the collective imagination like Fernando. The guy had been so anonymous that in a baseball card industry recently flush with competition, only Fleer saw fit to include him in its 1981 set . . . and misspelled his name.
Valenzuela seemed imperturbable—Pedazo de pastel, he said when asked how he felt about starting the season opener, Piece of cake—so composed through what should have been a fraught-filled start that the Los Angeles Times was compelled to report that “if he had been 100 years old and in the majors for 90 of them, he couldn’t have looked more in control.”
As if limiting Houston to five hits in a 2–0 opening day victory wasn’t enough, two of those hits came off of broken bats, and a third didn’t breach the infield. Said Fernando with such unassuming ease that it was impossible to confuse the sentiment for bravado: “When I get on the mound I don’t know what afraid is.”
“Hell,” shrugged outfielder Jay Johnstone, looking back, “you’ve got to break him in somewhere.”