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The Dodgers have one this year, only he's El Natural. His name is Fernando Valenzuela, and with apologies to the 150 citizens of Etchohuaquila, Mexico, he comes from nowhere. His ancestry is Mayan Indian, and he speaks just enough English to order a beer. He is a lefthanded pitcher, and his body is more reminiscent of former Dodger lefthander Tommy Lasorda than it is of former Dodger lefthander Sandy Koufax. His future is more Koufax, though, than Lasorda.
Los Angeles fans got a tantalizing glimpse of Valenzuela in the last weeks of the 1980 season, when the Dodgers called him up from San Antonio of the Class AA Texas League to help them in their fight for the National League West title. Without Valenzuela, the Dodgers might not have forced the one-game playoff with the Houston Astros. In 10 relief appearances covering 17? innings, Valenzuela allowed no earned runs, struck out 16 and had two victories and a save. In the short time he spent with LA., he captured the heart of the Mexican community that surrounds Dodger Stadium, and it is no coincidence that he graces the back cover of the Dodgers' 1981 media guide.
Media guides are replete with hope, for '"rookie" in baseball's lexicon means hope, and every big league team has youngsters who are being counted on to come through, either now or in the near future. The Montreal Expos, for example, expect Tim Raines, minor league player of the year in 1980, to fill a gap in their outfield right away, whereas the Pittsburgh Pirates, solid behind the plate, can afford to be patient with an impressive rookie catcher named Tony Pena.
If Valenzuela fulfills Dodger hopes and becomes the third Los Angeles pitcher in a row to be named National League Rookie of the Year (following Rick Sutcliffe and Steve Howe), it will be because of his lanzamiento de tornillo, which is Spanish for scroogie. It usually takes years to master the screwball; Valenzuela did it in one season, and he has two of them, slow and fast. Dodger Catcher Joe Ferguson maintains that Valenzuela also has two kinds of fastball, straight and sinking, as well as a terrific curve, a changeup and a mediocre slider. "I run out of fingers when I give him the signs," says Ferguson.
Valenzuela is only 20, but he throws as if he were 34, which is his uniform number. Koufax, now a Dodger special pitching instructor, says, "It's very unusual for someone that young to have such control over so many pitches." Koufax says Valenzuela reminds him of Ron Perranoski, the renowned Dodger relief pitcher of the 1960s, because of his build. Perranoski, now the Dodgers' pitching coach, says Valenzuela reminds him of Jim Brewer, who succeeded Perranoski in the bullpen, because of his screwball. Dodger Vice President Al Campanis says Valenzuela reminds him of Carl Erskine, a Dodger hero of Ebbets Field days, because of his poise. One thing they all say: he's a natural.
"He throws so damn easy, it's sickening," says Rightfielder Reggie Smith.
"He's an amazing pitcher," says Brian Holton, who pitched with Valenzuela in the minor leagues. "At San Antonio we called him the Amazing Chief. It was a gross mismatch every time he went out there last summer."
Valenzuela was born Nov. 1, 1960 in Navojoa on the west coast of Mexico. The Dodgers know this because Campanis sent Mike Brito, the scout who signed Valenzuela, to Navojoa to pick up his birth certificate. "I knew nobody would believe how young he was, unless we got some proof," says Campanis.