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Fernando Fever is sweeping Southern California like a brush fire on a windy day. The symptoms: giddiness, euphoria and a vague sense of disbelief. The cause: Fernando Valenzuela, the Dodgers' sensational 20-year-old rookie lefthander from Mexico. So what if Robert Redford says, "I've never heard of him." Valenzuela probably hasn't heard of Redford. A Redondo man composed a song in Valenzuela's honor. A Barstow woman created a Fernando Valenzuela T shirt. The highbrow Los Angeles Times published a laudatory editorial. The lowbrow Los Angeles Herald Examiner started a nickname contest. And the message board at Dodger Stadium has taken to identifying Valenzuela by his first name only.
The epidemiology of Fernando Fever can be easily documented. In his first four starts Valenzuela pitched complete-game victories over Houston (2-0 and 1-0), San Diego (2-0) and San Francisco (7-1). As of last Sunday he was the National League leader in wins, shutouts, earned run average (0.25) and strikeouts (36) and he had walked just seven batters. If you include Valenzuela's 28 days in the majors late last season (2-0 and a 0.00 ERA in 17 2/3 innings of relief) and the final six weeks of his minor league career (7-0 and 0.00 in 35 innings at San Antonio), he has allowed just one earned run in 88 2/3 innings and won his last 13 decisions.
Valenzuela's success can be traced to October 1979 when he was taught how to throw a screwball by Dodger Reliever Bob Castillo. He perfected that difficult pitch in a year—or a half-dozen fewer seasons than it took Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell, the most famous of all screwball pitchers. Delivered with a high-kicking motion that brings to mind Juan Marichal, Valenzuela's scroogie tails away from righthanded hitters. When righties crowd the plate to get a better shot at it, Valenzuela jams them with an inside fastball he perfected under the tutelage of Pitching Coach Ron Perranoski. But like most outstanding pitchers, Valenzuela relies as much on carefully nurtured skills as raw ability. "He can hit either corner with his fastball, throw the scroogie at two different speeds and come in with a fine curve," says Perranoski.
Valenzuela isn't the first rookie pitcher to get off to a fast start, and some of his predecessors have sobering histories. Boo Ferriss won his first eight decisions, including four shutouts for the 1945 Red Sox, finished the season at 21-10 and was 25-6 in 1946, but he burned out quickly. Karl Spooner threw two shutouts after reporting to Brooklyn late in 1954, but survived just one complete season. Von McDaniel, who was said to "hypnotize the bats," won four straight for St. Louis early in 1957; he finished that year at 7-5 and was demoted in 1958. The most celebrated pitching phenom of all time was Detroit's Mark Fidrych. The Bird was 9-1, with nine complete games and a 1.86 ERA, on July 3, 1976 and finished the season at 19-9, but he has fought a losing battle against injuries ever since. However, Jerry Koosman (4-0 start and a 19-12 record in 1968) and Vida Blue (19-3 and 24-8 in 1971) did use exceptional performances in their first full seasons as launching pads to distinguished careers. That Valenzuela is the majors' youngest player—Yankee Pitcher Gene Nelson was born one month later but he's on the disabled list—makes his success all the more startling.
"You judge a guy by what he does in battle, not basic training," says Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda. "We brought him up in the heat of last year's race, and our scouts said he could be used in any situation. Just look what he did."
The Astros were the victims in Valenzuela's most significant game so far this season, a 1-0 victory last Wednesday in Houston. He was facing the Astros for the second time in two weeks, and when he had trouble keeping his pitches down, Houston figured to tee off on him. Yet Valenzuela pitched out of trouble in five innings, leaving eight men on base overall. "He was so relaxed out there," said Dodger Reliever Terry Forster, "that he seemed to be laughing at them, telling them they couldn't score."
That wasn't all he did. With the Astros' Terry Puhl on second and nobody out in the first inning, Valenzuela fielded Craig Reynolds' bunt in front of the mound. Seeing Puhl trapped off second, Valenzuela went after him like a lion after a zebra, tagged him out, wheeled instinctively to throw and almost caught Reynolds off first for a double play. Minutes later Valenzuela did catch Reynolds off first with a perfect pickoff throw, but Reynolds reached second when First Baseman Steve Garvey hit him on the back with his relay. And just for good measure, Valenzuela drove in the game's only run with a single down the leftfield line. A slap hitter with good bat control, he was batting .333 at week's end.
"One thing I can't do is run," says Valenzuela. At 5'11", 190 pounds, he'll never be mistaken for an Olympic sprinter, but Forster believes that "weight is an advantage. It keeps him strong." Indeed, Mike Scioscia, who has caught Valenzuela in three of his four starts, says the pitcher grows stronger as the game progresses.
Valenzuela is a powerful endorsement of the three Cs: control, confidence and composure. "He's great at hitting the corners," says Mike Brito, a Cuban-born scout who signed Valenzuela to a Dodger contract, after spotting him in an obscure Mexican league. "He's confident enough to throw Johnny Bench a fastball with men on second and third. But what amazes me is that he's never nervous. I'd like to know why. All Fernando says is, 'I'm not supposed to be afraid.' "
People who have watched Valenzuela pitch are both impressed and confused. "I'm in awe of anybody who can master the screwball," says Houston Pitcher Don Sutton. "The key is his fastball," argues San Francisco Second Baseman Joe Morgan. "It's good enough that you can't lean on his curve or screwball." Says Astro First Baseman Mike Ivie, "His delivery and motion make it look as if he's throwing a fastball all the time." Houston Outfielder Puhl appreciates the way Valenzuela mixes speeds. "By the fifth or sixth he has figured out just how much he needs to take off his screwball to each hitter." Adds San Diego Outfielder Gene Richards, "You have to like his control, even if he's the other team's pitcher. It's great seeing a 20-year-old pitcher doing the things he does, great being a part of it."