The tidal wave of attention that season would have been enough to drown any 20-year-old, to say nothing of a foreigner hampered by the language barrier and overwhelmed by El Norte's fast-paced lifestyle. More than 20 years later Latino athletes still struggle to adjust to life in the U.S.; for Valenzuela everything was magnified a hundredfold. "Pitching in front of the huge crowds was the easiest part," he says. "The difficulties were away from the game." It was in the relentless glare of the media that he felt most vulnerable.
Valenzuela can recall his frustration in trying to answer reporters' questions—which he willingly attempted to do in press conferences at the start of every series on the road-even after he got a translator he was comfortable with, Dodgers Spanish-language announcer Jaime Jarrin. New York was the most intense, of course. "I remember entering a room and being stunned," says Valenzuela. "There were about 60 photographers, and that's without counting TV cameras and journalists."
He put the finishing touch on his rookie season by going 3-1 with a 2.22 ERA in three postseason series, and the Dodgers won the World Series in six games over the New York Yankees.
Act II? Are you kidding?
Valenzuela spent 10 mostly successful seasons in L.A., his best one (after his rookie year) coming in 1986, when he was 21-11 with a 3.14 ERA, 242 strikeouts and a league-high 20 complete games. And he was not just a popular player and a crafty lefty—he was a marketing juggernaut. He galvanized the interest of millions of Latinos and was the main reason the Dodgers had the largest home attendance in team history in '82 and '83. "It happened so fast it was like a forest fire," says Tommy Lasorda, his manager at the time. "He had tremendous impact on the Dodgers, the fans and all of baseball. Everywhere we went everyone wanted to see this lefthander from Mexico pitch. He attracted crowds on the road and at home like you've never seen. Fernandomania was something I will never forget."
Valenzuela's cashable celebrity opened corporate America's eyes to the idea of marketing Hispanic players to a Latino audience hungry for heroes in their own likeness. The young phenom swung open the doors that future Latino megastars like Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa would walk through.
In the six seasons from 1982 through '87, Valenzuela averaged 266 innings pitched per year and 7% innings per start, heavy work for any pitcher and especially for a young arm that threw so many screwballs. He missed eight weeks of the '88 season with a shoulder injury but two years later pitched a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals. Arm weary, he went 13-13 with a 4.59 ERA in 1990, and the Dodgers released him in spring training the following year. Over the next six seasons Valenzuela spent time with five major league teams, did a stint in the minors and went home to play in the Mexican summer league twice. He recaptured a bit of the magic in '96 when he went 13-8 with a 3.62 ERA to help the San Diego Padres win the NL West.
By the time the Cardinals released him, in 1997, Valenzuela at least recognized that his big league career was over. "I knew I couldn't take the intense training and preparation required to compete at the major league level," he says. "But I didn't want to announce my retirement. I wanted to keep pitching at whatever level I could."
For Fernando and Fernandito, the generation gap is little more than a fissure. To be sure, padre and hijo have their differences. (For one, Dad is partial to las Norte�as, traditional Northern Mexican folk songs; his son opts for hip-hop and rap.) But the family bond is strong, and is for all the Valenzuelas, including Fernandito's younger siblings Ricardo, 19, a 6'4" offensive lineman at Glendale Community College; Linda, 17, a high school volleyballer at Immaculate Heart; and Maria Fernanda, 12, who favors softball. When Fernando and Linda, his wife of 21 years, bought a place for Fernandito to live in Henderson, Nev., 15 minutes from school, they chose a three-bedroom town house with plenty of room for visiting family members in town to watch UNLV home games.
What those visitors saw was a soft-handed 5'11", 220-pound first baseman who batted .337, with 14 home runs and 75 RBIs, and was named Mountain West Conference Player of the Year. "He knows what pitches he can handle and likes to get deep into the count," says Rebels coach Jim Schlossnagle. "And he's the best defensive first baseman I've ever coached. His glove really saved us this season." In the major league draft on June 3 Fernandito was selected in the 10th round by the Padres; last Thursday, in his professional debut with the Single-A Eugene (Ore.) Emeralds, he went 4 for 6 with two homers, a double and six RBIs.