Smokeball after smokeball burned over the plate, catching the strike zone at the knees and the batters at full gape. Sid Fernandez of the Vero Beach Dodgers--a farm team of the champion Los Angeles Dodgers--was pitching the ninth inning of a no-hit game.
The final batter for the Winter Haven Red Sox went down swinging. If his bat were as wide as a surfboard, he still couldn't have touched Fernandez' fastball. The pitcher, age 19 and as husky as a ripe pineapple from his native Hawaii, struck out 18 of the 27 batters he faced. Sportswriters covering the Florida State League are calling him a "phenom." I'm calling him the next Koufax.
Much of the pleasure provided by minor league baseball is looking over the up and comings, seeing the farm teams as futurity events. Two summers ago here at Holman Stadium, which has palm trees in the outfield and where sluggers sometimes blast inside-the-tree homers, Steve Sax was picked by local sages as a hot prospect when he played second base for the Vero Beach Dodgers. Now he's in the bigs, chasing grounders for Los Angeles.
For the first time in several baseball seasons, I passed up Dodgers' spring training in Vero Beach, the operation that is the friendliest and most tradition-rich of the big league camps. I had no interest in the Valenzuela salary war, the potshots of which were dominating talk here and hurting the basal merriment the sport is meant to give. Instead, I waited until the teams had gone north and west, and when Sid Fernandez came south and east to pitch what was--trivia fans everywhere should note--the greatest game ever pitched in the 34 years of Dodgertown.
Minor league ball has attractions not found in major league play. Here the talk is of talent, not money. How can fans speculate about the financial deals of players in a league that provides average salaries of less than $5,000 a season?
Fernandez the wunderkind is paying little heed himself to the dollar. When I asked him how he gets hop on his fastball, he modestly said that speed was a natural talent but that he still needed to develop a curve and a change-up. He hoped to get, before long, what all the legends of the mound, from Bob Feller to Bob Gibson, were working on when they were 19: good stuff.
It is a happy coincidence that Fernandez is on a Dodger farm team. The organization is one of the few that still carries on the tradition of developing its own players. Last year's championship was won by athletes whose skills had been honed by scouts and coaches, not bought by profiteering owners from commercializing agents.
The Dodgers' brightest talent, first baseman Steve Garvey, once served the team as a spring training bat boy. His father drove the team bus when the Dodgers came to Florida for spring training. Garvey is family, but this season the press is pestering him with questions about his contract, which runs out this year. The drama, contrived by those sportswriters who seemed to have missed their callings as business reporters, is whether or not Garvey will go down on strikes in his negotiations with a management that has two power- hitting first basemen on Dodger farm teams and who are ready to come up.
With so much money at the top, many players now arrive in the major leagues as undeveloped one-dimensional hulks. Fielders with mitts the size of tuna nets routinely drop fly balls that a Willie Mays could catch barehanded behind his back. Million-dollar contracts mean that players are so awash in financial security that they are under little pressure to master fundamentals like catching a pop-up.
The most notable deficiency is desire. With television destroying farm teams--we had 444 of them in 1949 but have only 160 now--players miss the opportunity to play hungry in the tank towns. Today, with one hot year they may be called up. They arrive without effort, they play without desire. Eddie (The Brat) Stanky, the firestorm of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, groveled in the minor leagues for eight years before being brought up. His desire to give his gutmost was so strong that he would deliberately put his body in the way of pitches so he could get on base.
In Vero Beach, I saw no future Stankys. But Sid Fernandez did radiate desire. He's as hungry to strike out batters with curves and change-ups as with his smokers. If he moves up to Los Angeles, he'll make it because he has a strong arm --and a strong heart.