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The true phenoms

Five pitchers who became national sensations

Posted: Friday August 4, 2006 12:32PM; Updated: Friday August 11, 2006 10:04PM
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Fernando Valenzuela, in 1981, in the classic 'breathing through his eyelids' part of his pitching delivery.
Fernando Valenzuela, in 1981, in the classic 'breathing through his eyelids' part of his pitching delivery.
Andy Hayt/Si

Can you remember the last time we saw a rookie class of pitchers as impressive as the one we are seeing in the American League this year? Justin Verlander, Francisco Liriano, Jered Weaver and Jonathan Papelbon are all having wonderful seasons for contending teams. In a given year, any one of them would be a cinch for the Rookie of the Year award. Yet in spite of their brilliance, none of them has become a true phenomenon.

Not all great rookie pitchers have the stuff it takes to be a sensation, no matter how dominant they are on the field. Floyd Bannister, Steve Avery, Todd Van Poppel and Josh Beckett are just a few of the highly touted young pitchers who failed to become a household name as a rookie. Mark Prior came close with the Chicago Cubs in 2003, as did Felix Hernandez -- prematurely knighted "King" -- for the Seattle Mariners in 2005.

So what makes for bona fide mania? It is a combination of things: age, style, personality, circumstances and, of course, timing.

Over the past 30 years, there have only been a handful of true phenoms, and they have all possessed several if not all of these traits. They became celebrities suddenly and unexpectedly. The coming-out-of-nowhere angle is crucial (even if the players performed well before they reached the big leagues), particularly when the pitcher is especially young. There is nothing as thrilling as watching a precocious kid master grown men. The babe-in-the-woods angle is also appealing from a human-interest perspective. These young guys are unaffected innocents, not yet hardened by the pressures of the media and the fans, not to mention the game.

Nobody in this year's crop has demonstrated the kind of flake and flair it takes to become a household name. This isn't meant as a knock on them, it's just an example of how rare true sensations really are. With that in mind, here's a look at the five greatest rookie phenoms of the past 30 years.

1. Fernando Valenzuela: As Good As It Gets

The 20-year-old Valenzuela was plucked from the Mexican League and became a folk hero in Los Angeles 25 years ago. He won Rookie of the Year, the Cy Young Award and a World Series ring in his debut season with the Dodgers in 1981. Will anyone who saw him pitch ever forget his inimitable delivery, which was the most captivatingly original motion since Luis Tiant?

Valenzuela had pitched 17 scoreless innings of relief at the end of the 1980 season and was a last-minute replacement for Jerry Reuss on Opening Day the following year. He pitched a shutout in his first game. Remarkably, Valenzuela would toss five shutouts in his first seven outings. He jumped out to an 8-0 record. Fernando Mania was born.

Valenzuela, the first Mexican of any distinction to play for the Dodgers, single-handedly helped repair the relationship between the organization and the Latino population of L.A., many of whom never forgave the Dodgers for building Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine, displacing an entire Mexican community in the process. In fact, he reversed it. Previously, three radio stations in Mexico carried Dodgers games. By the end of 1981, 17 stations aired them.

Attendance, both at Dodger Stadium and on the road, spiked when he pitched. The normally mild Dodgers crowd was infused with the energy and spirit of Mexican Los Angelenos. The chubby Valenzuela did not speak English, but that did not have a negative effect on his appeal. There was something direct and uncomplicated about this round, homely man with the warm, open smile.