After blanking the Reds twice and the Giants once in relief, Valenzuela picked up his first save on Sept. 27 against the Padres. His first win came in a relief appearance against the Giants on Sept. 30. His second came in the opener of the final series with the Astros; he pitched the ninth and 10th innings and made Cesar Cedeno look silly on a fastball, a fast screwball and a slow screwball. On the final day of the regular season, when the Dodgers won to pull into a first-place tie with Houston, he had two more shutout innings. And in the playoff loss on Oct. 6, he blanked the Astros for two innings.
The ovations in Dodger Stadium grew each time Valenzuela walked out of the bullpen. Hard as it is to believe, Valenzuela is only the second native Mexican to pitch for the Dodgers since their move to Los Angeles; Jos� Pena, a reliever from 1970 to '72, was the other. "I've never seen anything like it," says Rudy Hoyos, an actor and Spanish-language broadcaster for the Dodgers, who handles some of the translating chores for Valenzuela. "They love him already."
The adulation continued this winter when Valenzuela pitched in Mexico's Pacific League. All of his announced starts were sellouts, and he lived up to his fame with a 12-5 record, an ERA of 1.65 and 154 strikeouts in 147 innings.
As unlikely as Valenzuela's story is, his body is even more unlikely. The Dodgers list him as 5'11" and 180 pounds, which is a joke. The height is right, but the weight is off by about 20 pounds. Fernando says he has always been a big kid. And he loves his beer. "It's so hot in Mexico that beer is like water," he says, "and the beer is very good." Mexican beer is very good, and Valenzuela is living testament to its quality.
"I remember one time last year," says Mike Marshall, not the former reliever but a rookie first baseman, "the Chief waited at the airport for two days for his girl friend to show up. After the second day, when she still hadn't arrived, we saw him go into a grocery store. He came out with a six-pack of Budweiser and headed for his room, head down, belly out. He was going to drown his sorrows." Beer is the universal language.
Although Valenzuela looks pudgy, he is not out of shape; he runs three miles a day. He just eats like a horse. "My only worry," says Red Adams, the Dodgers pitching coach emeritus, "is that somebody will decide Fernando should lose weight, and then he will become the best-conditioned pitcher at Lodi this year."
Language has not been an impediment to Valenzuela's appetite. "I go to a restaurant and point at what I want on the menu," he says. "I have been surprised, but never disappointed." He thinks that too much has been made of his beer-drinking. He worries more about the blisters that occasionally sprout on his throwing hand than about his weight.
The Dodgers don't know yet what role Valenzuela will play for them this season. If they need help in the bullpen, he may have to return there. Otherwise, he'll be a starter. And while there may be occasional language problems with his teammates, there is no communications barrier. "He was the most popular guy on the San Antonio club last year," says Marshall. "He didn't say anything, but the Chief had the spirit of the clubhouse. Sometimes he'd make funny faces or spit water next to your feet."
His minor league nickname, "the Chief," came from the Indian character in the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Most of the Dodgers now call him Freddy in an effort to Anglicize Fernando. Some of them try to speak to him in Spanish, but it's usually of the el bat, el ball, el hit y run variety. One thing Valenzuela does understand is comedy. He loved Max Patkin. the Clown Prince of Baseball, when he visited San Antonio last year, and he sat laughing with Ted Giannoulas, the San Diego Chicken, at poolside for 20 minutes before Giannoulas realized that Fernando didn't understand English. Comedy is the universal language.
"He's actually a very quiet guy," says rookie Outfielder Mark Bradley, Valenzuela's roommate at Dodgertown in Vero Beach. "We try to get him to go out, but he just has two beers and goes to sleep. He does like video games, though." Space Invaders is the universal language.