The rookie is taking his licks in batting practice, but, since he can't speak or understand much English, he doesn't know what his teammates are saying. His eyes twinkle with pleasure as he tries to pick up their tone of voice. His grinning, swarthy, 20-year-old face looks enthusiastic and open, but, somehow, it also looks tough and maybe just a trace mean.
On the mound, the Los Angeles Dodger manager, Tommy Lasorda, is pitching batting practice. The first pitch is what remains, at age 53, of Lasorda's best fast ball. It goes exactly where Lasorda aims it -- at the rookie's head.
He hits the dirt.
The Dodger veterans around the cage laugh at the brushback pitch.
"Hey, Tommy, be careful. That kid's your ticket back onto the (TV) talk shows," says Ron Cey, third baseman.
"We thought Tommy'd lost his little black book with the phone numbers of all the talk show hosts . . . you know . . . David Hartman, Johnny Carson," needles Dave Lopes, the second baseman.
"I been on 'Good Morning America' seven times," yells back Lasorda. "I don't need to call anybody. All the biggies call me."
Lasorda throws his next pitch.
The rookie, who looks like a pudgy kid -- maybe 5-foot-11, 190 pounds and plenty of it in the wrong places -- takes an easy, flicking swing. Since he's a pitcher himself, it's just a makeshift hack, not a polished big league swing.
The ball takes off like a rocket and sails over the fence.
"Hey, Tommy, you can burn that black book," yells Lopes.
The Dodgers laugh again. The little fat kid is going to take all of these once-famous, recently scored Dodgers back to the big time. And they know it.
"Protect him?" asked Reggie Smith incredulously. "You're damn right we're going to protect him.
"He's The Natural -- the one in a million. It's like The Man Upstairs reached down, put his hand on the kid's shoulder and said, 'You're the one.'"
Once, Reggie Smith was a natural, the switch hitter they compared to Mickey Mantle. Before the injuries -- to knees, shoulders, etc. -- he knew the feeling of that hand on his shoulder. Nobody in baseball had the tools he had, once upon a time.
"People say his 'body form' isn't right, because he doesn't look like a weightlifter," says Smith, spitting a curse. "Watch him dribbling that ball," says Smith, pointing to The Natural standing alone in the outfield playing with a baseball as though it were a soccer ball; he bounces it from thigh to thigh, knee to knee, off his chest, off his head, playing a casual game of hot potato without obvious effort.
"Pure coordination," says Smith. "He doesn't think about what he does. He just does it. They said that Willie Mays always had a lot of little boy in him. Well, this kid really is just a boy. When you play baseball only for enjoyment -- not money or fame or all the other things -- it's one fun game. That's this guy. He likes to do two things.Eat and play baseball. I hope people leave him alone and let him enjoy it. To tell the truth, I hope he never learns to speak English. Sometimes, especially in this game, ignorance is bliss."
So far, the Kid only has one hobby, if you don't count an addiction to Space Invaders, which is a generational disease. He collects hotel room keys. It started two years ago in the California League. At each new glamor town, like Lodi and Visali, he would send the room key back as a souvenior to his mother in his home town of Etchohuaquila, Mexico (population 150).
"He's so innocent you can't believe it," says Lopes. "What I want to know is, where has he been all these years to get so old on the mound?"
The Los Angeles Dodgers have the biggest name in baseball: Fernando Valenzuela.
The man whose name sounds like a mailing address in the lower Andes isn't the hottest young player since Mark Fidrych or Willie Mays or since anybody.
He, at this moment, is the hottest rookie in the history of the game.
Baseball is the sport of statistics. They explain everything. And nothing. That's their charm. And it is statistics that have given the chubby Valenzuela his current gigantic stature.
At one glorious point here on Sunday, as Valenzuela won his sixth straight game of the season, these were some of his numbers:
36 consecutive shutout innings.
70 innings in the majors, one earned run, driving his career ERA at one fabulously lucky moment down to 13. That's 0.13. VALENZULA, From D1>
34 hits allowed (a .140 batting average against him), 11 walks and 66 strikeouts.
In a stretch of 105 innings (counting 35 in the minors before he reached the big leagues last Sept. 10), Valenzuela had allowed one earned run.
Last September he proved that he could win in a pennant race as he made 10 consecutive shutout relief appearances, earning a save and winning two games (one in extra innings against Houston on the last vital weekend of the season).
Already this season Senor Cero (Mr. Zero) is 6-0 with the screwball money pitch that has already been dubbed "Fernando's Fadeaway."
He's won in the cold (in Candlestick Park), he's won in the rain (in San Diego), he's won indoors (in Houston), he's won in another country (Canada), and he stll hasn't give up his first run at home in lovely Chavez Ravine, where he is a full-blown folk hero. Angelenos there wear T-shirts that read, "I live in the Fernando Valley."
He's beaten Don Sutton, Vida Blue and Bill Gullickson, twice driving in the winning run with hits from his bat. He's won, 1-0, on the road against the champions of the West Division (Houston) and he gave up only one run in winning in extra innings against the favorites in the East Division (Montreal).
Despite all this, little is known about Fernando Valenzuela.
He is the ultimate baseball mystery.
What does he think about on the mound? How did he get so savvy at the age of 20?
Is he really 20? He acts much older. What will the arm-wrecking screwball, which he learned only 18 months ago and which catapulted him from a good minor leaguer to a great major leaguer, do to his arm? Does he have season-long stamina? How will he react to the zillion pressures and distractions of being a megacelebrity, especially in Southern California where Spanish-speaking media abounds?
In almost any other sport such a start to a pro career probably would carry with it the certainty of long-term stardom. But baseball is more subtle. What you see isn't necessarily what you get.
Many young pitchers have blown the doors off the league their first time through the loop. Dave (Boo) Ferriss of the 1945 Red Sox won his first eight starts, including four shutouts in his first six games, the same shutout raio as Valenzuela. The next year, when the World War II vets were back, Feriss won 25 games. But he hurt his arm, retired after six seasons, and now is the coach at Delta State College in Mississippi. You may have never heard of him.
As though the Valenzuela story needed any more piquancy, this dimension of total indeterminancy provides it. As yet, the rookie is not assured of anything; witness Mark Fidrych who started 1976 with six consecutive complete-game wins (1.89 ERA), and now appears to be finished.
There are Valenzuela doubters.
After watching the southpaw (who Lasorda calls "Carl Hubbelito") beat his Giants twice, San Francisco Manager Frank Robinson was quoted as saying, "He's ordinary. The hitters will learn him."
On Sunday here, 41-year-old Woody Fryman said, "Valenzuela's excellent. But if you're talking about long-range success, I'll take the guy on our team who pitched against him (and lost) -- Bill Gullickson (age 22)."
What about all those numbers, Woody?
"I'll still take Gullickson," repeated the Expo left-hander.
This seventh son and youngest of 12 children, raised on a truck farm smaller than an infield, is surrouned by constant Dodger concern. The scout who discovered him in an obscure Mexican league four years ago -- Mike Brito, a Cuban who was once a Washington Senator farmhand -- now is traveling with the team, ostensibly doing such things as catching batting practice and clocking runners going first to third, but really keeping a paternal eye on Valenzuela. Proud as a peacock GM Al Camanis, who tightfistedly believes that Latin players are "hungrier," also is along to this trip to make sure nothing happens to his prize.
"Everyone knows he would be easy to exploit," says Steve Garvey. "This will be a real test for our front office and public relations people. He's definitely lucky he doesn't speak English. There are times when a lot of us wish we didn't."
"The kid's lucky he can't understand all the people yapping at him. Nobody can mess up his mind," says Houston Don Sutton, adding devilishly, "of course, Lasorda speaks fluent Spanish." To this proposition, Valenzuela responds (through a translator), "Maybe he's right. I just go pitch how I know best."
"You have to look out for him because you can tell everything is new to him. He's wide-eyed and always smiling," says Lopes. "But you can't lead him by the hand and tell him when to blow his nose.You can't turn him back into a baby and have him lose his manhood. It's a fine line."
"What's all the excitment about?" protests right fielder "Crazy" Jay Johnstone. "He's a 20-year-old left-hander with control, poise, brains and stuff. Just 'cause there hasn't been one in a century, everybody gets worked up. For example, my agent calls and says he wants to replace me in my Pillsbury Doughboy commercial with Valenzuela. I told him, 'Calm down, man. The kid can't even laugh in English."
More seriously, Johnstone is asked of whom Valenzuela reminds him. "Just so he never reminds me of Bo Belinsky. I was with the Angels when Bo came up, pitched a no-hitter and got the same star treatment. It ruined him." c
All those potential problems are mercifully in the future. For now, Valenzuela is very happy with his $42,500 salary; just last week, he and Lasorda went on a shopping excursion and Hollywood Tommy picked out the kid's first expensive suit -- a $450 in stripe job. The irony was not lost on the Dodgers; they knew that the other team in the bidding skirmish to buy Valenzuela's contract from Puebla of the Mexican League in July, 1979, was the New York Yankees, the pin stripers. The Dodgers won with a $120,000 bid, $20,000 of it going to Valenzuela, the rest to his sticky-fingered native team.
For now, Valenzuela also is protected by the genuine affection his teammates have for him. "He hates to see a relief pitcher get up and he's never been hooked," said Smith before Sunday's game.
"None of us wants to be the first one to pinch hit for him. We've set up an executive committee of older guys over 35 (Smith, Johnstone and Rick Monday) to appoint the first pinch hitter for Fernando. It's definitely not going to be me. We think we'll probably sacrifice Pepe Frias."
True to the way Valenzuela's luck is running, that day he was lifted for a pinch hitter in the 10th inning of a 1-1 tie, the pinch hitter was the reluctant Smith, who gave Valenzuela the victory with a run-scoring hit.
No matter what happens to Valenzuela, whether he wins 25 games every year until he's 40, or whether he proves to be merely another mortal pitcher given to gopher balls, elbow miseries and stretches of lost control, these will be the most vividly remembered days of his career.
Nothing is more fascinating than the unknown commodity. For now, he is the embodiment of the nickname his bush-league buddies gave him last season: The Amazing Chief. At first, they called him The Chief, because he was silent, inscrutable, strong, yet secretly mischievous and intelligent like the character of The Chief in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." That Chief, after two hours of stoic, apparently moronic silence, proved, in the last reel, to be articulate, cynical and funny beneath his Cigar Store Indian facade. However, after seeing Valenzuela pitch, his San Antonio mates starting calling him The Amazing Chief.
"You feel yourself drawn to him," says Smith."When I'm on the bench, I feel like I'm throwing every pitch with him. In this game, you judge a player over 10 years, not 10 starts. But I think he'd stand the test of time."
"Webster doesn't have words to define him," says Lopes.
To all of this, Valenzuela begins every response to a question with the reflexive word, "Bueno (good)." Whatever he is asked, his first contented thought is "bueno."
"I've been reading a book that reminds me of Fernando," says Garvey. "It's a study on sports psychology that talks about all the factors that go into ideal performance . . . you know . . . trying to figure out what happens those rare times when you do it all perfectly, whether its a home run in the Series or a touchdown pass or a last-second basket or, I guess, a slap shot into the upper right-hand corner."
Garvey gives a little smile. He likes this book title. "It's called, "The Sweet Spot in Time," he says.
That sweet spot in time is where Fernando Valenzuela lives right now. No one knows for how long.