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It was November 1997, and Fernando Valenzuela was a 37-year-old pitcher suffering from arm fatigue and losing his battle to stay in shape. Three months earlier he'd been let go by the St. Louis Cardinals, and it appeared then that after 17 years in the majors, he was done as a player. Yet here he was, standing on the mound in the uniform of Los Naranjeros de Hermosillo of the Mexican Pacific League, the same winter league in which, as a 16-year-old, he'd struck out his first batter as a pro.
"I thought I might be good for one more year" Valenzuela says now. "I needed to keep playing. I am Mexican. I wanted to put on a good show in front of my people." In truth, he just couldn't give up the game.
So Valenzuela, the once-beloved object of Fernandomania and the most prominent member of Mexico's pantheon of peloteros, pitched for four months over each of the next five winters, winning 13 of 21 decisions, until his contract with Hermosillo expired in January 2002. He was 41, and there was no place left to play.
By then his oldest child, Fernando Jr., was a standout first baseman at Glendale ( Calif.) Community College, living at home in Hollywood Hills with the family. The following fall, Fernandito, as the son is affectionately known, would leave for UNLV, to enroll for his junior year and play Division I baseball.
A carbon copy of his father, with the same jet-black hair, round cheeks and baby-faced smile, Fernandito also shares his father's passion for the game. "A lot of kids get to the point where they say, 'I don't want to play baseball anymore,' " Fernandito says. "I'm different. I want to get as far as I can and do the best that I can. That's something that has been passed on to me through my dad."
Valenzuela drove his son across the desert and helped him settle into a rented off-campus condo. In the first week of fall practice, Fernandito turned heads with his bat and his glove, and this spring he led the Rebels to a 47-17 record and an appearance at the NCAA regional final.
Many times during the season his father was there to watch. And as he stood in the stands and soaked in his son's success, the older and more famous Valenzuela finally began to accept his own exit from the game.
It's not easy coping with the ultimate truth that every player's final deal is a one-way trade out the stadium door, a sometimes brutal segue into una vida sin b�isbol. For Fernando ( El Toro) Valenzuela, who as a 20-year-old rookie lefthander in 1981 electrified Southern California with his aura of youthful invincibility on the mound, it has been a particularly rough retreat. So much early success, so much fawning attention. Just imagine being in his spikes in the spring and summer of '81....
After lefthander Jerry Reuss pulled a leg muscle 24 hours before his scheduled Opening Day start, Valenzuela got the call to start the season, and he shut out the Houston Astros 2-0 on five hits. By mid-May he was 8-0 with a 0.50 ERA, and Fernandomania was sweeping the country. Relying on a screwball (lanzamiento de tornillo) that he had learned a year earlier, he threw seven complete games and five shutouts—including 36 consecutive scoreless innings—in those first eight starts.
He was the National League's starting pitcher in the All-Star Game (he tossed one scoreless inning) and finished the strike-interrupted season with a 13-7 record, a 2.48 ERA and National League highs in strikeouts (180), complete games (11) and shutouts (eight). He even hit .250 and had two game-winning RBIs. With a loopy windup and eyes that rolled skyward in the middle of his delivery, Valenzuela was the first player in either league to win Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award in the same year.