Fernando Valenzuela's left arm was bent up in an awkward angle, and his hand circled over his wrist as if rhythmically stirring some upside-down concoction. Twirling at the end of his reach was a cowboy lasso in an oblong loop that for a moment resembled a slightly off-center halo. Suddenly, the lasso snaked just above the floor of the Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse and snagged the passing leg of catcher Mike Scioscia.
A few moments later, Valenzuela headed for the playing field, where he saw Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda preparing to sing for an NBC-TV camera crew. Valenzuela shook his head and smiled with disbelief, and when Lasorda actually began piping We Are the World on behalf of the USA for Africa campaign, Valenzuela darted for the outfield, the palms of his hands pressed to his ears.
After the game began, Valenzuela and fellow lefthander Steve Howe spent two innings as Dodger bat boys, sitting in the designated chairs outside the team dugout and retrieving bats from home plate.
Valenzuela's straight-faced explanation later: "I want to make any contribution I can to help the team."
Valenzuela's disarming sense of humor is one of the few ways the Dodgers can smile through the frustration of their season to date. It has been particularly disappointing for the 24-year-old Valenzuela, the 1981 Cy Young Award winner and Rookie of the Year, whose rite of passage from phenom to established star continues to be tested by a running streak of tough luck.
The acknowledged ace of the staff, he may be the best lefthander in baseball, though you could never tell it from his record. He was well below .500 last year (12-17) and he has been struggling to reach .500 this season. Unfortunately, when Valenzuela takes the mound, the Dodger hitters frequently take the day off. Valenzuela the practical joker has been able to make light of it. When the drought was at its worst, Valenzuela was asked to recall the last time his teammates scored six runs for him. "They gave me five in San Diego and one in San Francisco. That adds up to six."
Ad-libs are not out of the ordinary for Valenzuela. One could see him on the Carson show trading barbs with fill-in Joan Rivers, if only he...if only he...could say all those things in English. There's the rub, for if Valenzuela still seems to be a charming adolescent with his youthful innocence intact, it may be because the negative adult realities of life haven't been fully interpreted for him.
Valenzuela was the National League's Pitcher of the Month in April. He opened the season with a string of 41⅓ innings without allowing an earned run, breaking Hooks Wiltse's 73-year-old major league record, and had an 0.21 ERA for the month. Shades of April 1981, when the rookie Valenzuela won all five of his starts—four by shutouts—and had an 0.20 ERA. But the déjà vu stopped there. Valenzuela's record for April was 2-3, making him the first Pitcher of the Month with a losing record. The Dodgers scored only eight runs in his five starts, and five came in one game. It was the same story a year ago when the Dodgers scored two runs or fewer in 18 of Valenzuela's 34 starts. And it goes on.
With three shutouts this season, Valenzuela's career total is 21. In all likelihood, no other pitcher in history had as many shutouts at his age. "What makes Fernando the great pitcher that he is," says Lasorda, "is that he has the baseball aptitude of an Einstein."
His record this year is only 7-8, despite the fact that Valenzuela himself feels he is throwing his legendary screwball as well as he did in his rookie season. "If I am a better pitcher than I was in '81, and I think I am," he says, "it's because of my control." Physically, the 5'11" Valenzuela more closely resembles his rookie form—even though he is listed at 195 pounds, he weighs close to 220.