Word spread from this little desert city suggesting something serious had happened in the last few weeks. Baseball's National League rookie of the year was a wreck, the rumors had it. Fernando Valenzuela had come home to Mexico, gotten married and fallen apart: playing winter ball with his old team, the Navojoa Mayos in a league full of youngsters and has-beens, the Dodgers' star was only 1-2.
Then Friday night he pitched a seven-inning no-hitter, a near-perfect game with only one walk.
Suddenly everything seemed back to normal.
"It's very moving," said Valenzuela as he came off the field, but he said it only because reporters were begging for a reaction. No, he said, he didn't think it was a vindication, because there was really nothing to vindicate. He didn't know whether the no-hitter would affect his negotiations with the Dodgers for what probably will be the biggest second-year contract in baseball history. "The people in Los Angeles are taking care of that," he said.
In fact, Valenzuela said, he didn't even think about the perfection of this game against Culiacan until it was almost over.
"I was thinking," he said, speaking in Spanish, "one out at a time."
It was that Valenzuela cool again, that calm that seems so calculated, so inscrutable and so incongruous in a 21-year-old who made it from here to the Dodgers to the world championship in a matter of months.
This taciturnity is all but indecipherable when you watch it on the mound in the World Series or see it face to face with the president.
Yet in Navojoa and nearby villages, with Valenzuela among his own people, such relentless tranquility seems suddenly natural.
Anybody in the little village of Etchohuaquila, where Valenzuela was born, will tell you that all 12 of the Valenzuela brothers and sisters are that way--"so quiet, so serious," as the oldest brother's wife put it.
These are determined, stubborn people from an Indian culture, the Yaquis and the Mayos, that fought the Spanish conquest and then the Mexican government for more than 400 years.
This is big sky country, and everything is kept in perspective. Only big issues, such as water for the crops, are worthy of a lot of talk. After awhile the years fade into a long blur and old men even forget their own ages.
In this slow-moving, single-minded world, baseball becomes more than an obsession. It can become life itself, something almost mystical, yet for these Indian children, without mystery. One game follows another, some good, some bad, like crops or the seasons. It is all a question of cycles and rhythms.
The kind of ball they play in Mexico's Pacific League is a strange hybrid of the game that Valenzuela grew up with and is on the fringes of the sport as it is played in the United States.
In the grandstand Friday night, Dodger scout Mike Brito sat behind home plate with a radar pistol in his hand, clocking every fast ball Valenzuela threw. Surrounding this godfather-like figure in his three-piece suit and snap brim hat were a dozen Indian children trying to make out the figures: 84, 84, 77, 84, and the batter was out.
From the dugout Sid Monge, another Mayos pitcher down from the United States, watched Valenzuela closely. Monge is 10 years older and has just become a free agent after pitching relief for the Cleveland Indians.
Six American players are on this team, some of them over the hill.
Many of them, as the manager said, mixing Spanish and English, are "Esperando un break," waiting for a break.
Another left-handed pitcher, Mercedes Esquer, is being looked at by Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Kansas City. But his age is a problem. He says he's 21. Brito says he is 24 and, at 24, may not be worth the $95,000 that the Mexican owner of his contract is asking.
It would be easy to imagine an intense jealousy of Valenzuela on the part of his teammates. He drives a club car that none of them got. He has been loaned a house that none of them have. They took a 16-hour bus ride to Tijuana for today's game. Valenzuela is not asked to travel at all, and went home to his wife and family to celebrate.
Yet far from envying Valenzuela, his teammates seem to idolize him, and blame themselves for his losses.
Talking about one of Valenzuela's defeats, Monge said there were "errors and errors, physical errors, mental errors you don't see on the scoreboard, but they weren't Fernando's. You could say he didn't get support. I would say he was butchered."
Last night, however, the team pulled together, with outfielder Willie Norwood making two spectacular diving catches to save Valenzuela in the sixth and seventh innings.
Before the game, Valenzuela talked about his problems playing here during the last few weeks.
"It's true that I've lost two and won one, but all that is numbers," he said, brushing aside the statistical obsession so common to baseball fans. "You always lose a game. There are errors or it can be for whatever reason, that's not important."
Baseball fans drooled at his rookie-season statistics: 13 wins, 7 losses; 2.48 earned run average; 11 complete games in 25 starts, eight of them shutouts; 180 strikeouts, 61 walks in 192 1/3 innings.
But for Valenzuela, what is important is not so much whether he wins or loses or even exactly how he plays the game, but just that he is playing the game. It is not the means to an end. It is the end itself.
"It is everything to Fernando ever since he was a little boy," said his new bride.
But since the World Series, Valenzuela had not been playing. He was flying around the United States and Mexico receiving awards--among them the National League Cy Young--visiting schools and hospitals and generally building on the image his agent wants to cultivate.
"I want him to be like Disneyland," said Antonio De Marco. "Everything family, children. A wholesome figure. An inspiration in the United States and Mexico."
Also like Disneyland, Valenzuela became a money-making machine. According to De Marco, the young pitcher has made only six endorsements in the United States and Mexico, refuses to lend his name to tobacco, liquor or even junk food and still has earned almost half a million dollars.
It was only two weeks ago, finally, that Valenzuela turned enough attention to his private life to get married. Until the baseball strike in June, he had not even seen his girlfriend, Linda Burgos, for two of the three years they have known each other. During the strike he got around to proposing to her, but he didn't ask her parents for her hand until after he won the third game of the World Series, when he called them on the phone.
He finally felt he had made it then, Linda said.
But all this cost him something.
"A pitcher has a rhythm," Valenzuela said last night before the game. "If you lose it, it's difficult to start it up again. It's not just a question of conditioning, it's more a question of getting back that rhythm you had."
Valenzuela and his friends here suggested that the Dodgers were reluctant to let him return to his old team for the winter. Why risk a golden arm helping out the Navojoa Mayos against the Culiacan Tomatoras?
But Valenzuela said he had to play winter ball to stay in shape. His friends said he had to come back to prove to them and himself that he is still a regular guy. And once he was here, slowly, in fits and starts and going easy on the famous screwball to go easy on the arm, with the win and two losses and now the no-hitter, the rhythm returned.
"He has adjusted again," said Mayos Manager Raul Cano, "because here no one bothers him. He can go to a restaurant, walk in the streets, without being mobbed. He's had enough of that. He's only 21 after all--a child beginning to be a man. He's a boy who needs his freedom."
When Valenzuela is free to do what he wants, he plays ball.