Fernando was the last of 12 children of Avelino and Maria Valenzuela; omen fans might be interested to know that he was the seventh son. The family has a small farm in Etchohuaquila, a settlement about 20 miles north of Navojoa. "The family is very, very poor," says Brito. "The farm is about half the size of the Dodger Stadium infield, about from shortstop to home plate." The family would work its own land in the morning, and the sons would work for money on a ranch in the afternoon. Fernando vows that with his first big money, he will buy his family a ranch.
Mexican kids play either soccer or baseball, and much as he liked soccer, Valenzuela says through an interpreter, "God put the talent in my arm, not in my feet." His eldest brother. Rafael, discovered that talent when Fernando was 13. "It was a winter day, and we were just throwing the ball around," Fernando says. "Rafael told me, 'You have the arm to be a pitcher.' " Fernando became so good that he started playing professionally in Mexico after only a year of high school.
The Dodgers found him purely by accident, but that story really starts with Brito, a Cuban who caught in the Washington Senators farm system until a home-plate collision wrecked his elbow in 1959. Brito bounced around the Mexican leagues for a while before finally quitting as a player and settling down in Los Angeles. He drove an RC Cola truck and in his spare time ran an amateur baseball league. On one of the teams was a pitcher named Bobby Castillo, who had failed as an infielder in the Kansas City Royals' organization. Brito recommended Castillo to the Dodgers, and when Castillo proved his worth, Brito became a fulltime Dodger scout.
Soon after his promotion, Brito went down to Silao, Mexico to look at a shortstop in a Mexican rookie league. "All the hotels in Silao were booked—it was Holy Week—so I ended up sleeping in the bus station on the only four chairs in there," recalls Brito. After a fitful night, he waited around for the game between Silao and Guanajuato. He watched the shortstop, but he also noticed that the pitcher for the other team was striking everybody out, including his prized prospect. By the end of the game, Valenzuela had 12 strikeouts and the scout's undivided attention. "I couldn't believe he was only 17," says Brito.
He reported his find to Campanis, who the next year went down to Yucatan, where Valenzuela was then pitching, and liked what he saw. "He struck out Earl Williams, who was still a pretty good hitter," says Campanis. Valenzuela belonged to the Puebla club of the Mexican League, and the Dodgers began protracted negotiations with owner Jaime Avella, a prosperous Mexican Volkswagen dealer. Puebla was reluctant to let Fernando go, but Avella said the Dodgers would get first crack if they did decide to sell him. The two teams finally reached agreement, and on July 6, 1979 the Dodgers paid Puebla a reported $120,000, of which Valenzuela got $20,000. (One of the reasons there are few Mexican players in the majors is that Mexican clubs like to hold on to them. But the Puebla club was fair: when the Yankees, who also coveted Fernando, raised the bid to $150,000, Avella honored the Dodgers' offer.)
Valenzuela was sent to Lodi in the Class A California League for the last weeks of the 1979 season, and in 24 innings he gave up only three earned runs. But Campanis felt that Valenzuela's fastball and curveball weren't enough, so he asked Castillo to go to the Arizona Instructional League the following winter and teach Fernando the screwball. Castillo, who had learned the pitch by watching Pirate reliever Enrique Romo throw on the sidelines in the Mexican League, says that Valenzuela picked it up right away. Says Castillo, "You have to learn to throw it without putting a strain on your arm. I remember talking to Carl Hubbell during an Old-Timers' Game, and he said the secret is to throw it at two different speeds."
Perranoski recalls that Warren Spahn taught Brewer how to throw the scroogie, but it was three years before Brewer could use it effectively. Valenzuela conquered the pitch in just a few months. "I saw Fernando three times last year," says Perranoski, then the Dodgers' minor-league pitching coach. "The first time he was getting away with some mistakes. The second time he was making fewer mistakes. The third time it was like watching a great horse in his last workout before the Kentucky Derby."
In his last eight games at San Antonio, Valenzuela had a 7-0 record with an 0.87 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 62 innings. New York Mets Outfielder Mike Howard, who batted against Fernando in the Texas League, said, "He was awesome. Great control, sneaky fastball. And that screwball—it breaks this much." Jackson held his hands wide apart.
Dodger advance scouts Jerry Stephenson and Charlie Metro filed glowing reports on Valenzuela. Says Lasorda, "They told me not to be afraid to use him in any situation. Usually, you use a kid like that in games that are already won or lost. But we used him in tight games in the middle of the pennant race."
The Dodgers called Valenzuela up on Sept. 10, after he had made only 30 appearances in their farm system. His first game was on Sept. 15 against Atlanta, and his first catcher was rookie Mike Scioscia. "It was the blind leading the blind," says Scioscia. "I know a little Spanish, but not enough to get a translator's job at the U.N. But he knew what he was doing." In two innings Valenzuela gave up two unearned runs but only one hit. Some rookie pitchers might have been afraid of Bob Horner, but Valenzuela retired him on an easy fly. He had never heard of Horner, anyway. In fact, Valenzuela didn't know who Koufax was before he signed with the Dodgers.