A rare rain may have dampened those who came to boo an even rarer pitcher. But the 71-minute rain delay annoyed Fernando Valenzuela no more than the San Diego Padres did.
Valenzuela made his first start of the season, pitching six scoreless innings and giving up five hits before yielding to relievers Dave Stewart and Dave Goltz in the Dodgers' 6-0 victory over the Padres before 46,692 at Dodger Stadium and a national television audience.
Because of a lengthy contract dispute this spring, Valenzuela had been booed in his only two spring appearances and when he had received his World Series ring in the Dodgers' opener Tuesday. Fernando-mania, it seemed, had become Fernando-phobia.
After today's 73-pitch, four strikeout performance, Valenzuela sat in the Dodger clubhouse, facing about 40 members of the press, wearing designer jeans and the same poker face that belied his royal flush performance. "I feel as good as ever. I was very confident I was going to win. I could have pitched all night, but it was the manager's decision," said Valenzuela (1-0), who left for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the sixth with a 4-0 lead.
The boos were as scattered as the Padres' hits. Valenzuela said, "The past is gone. I don't want to comment on that. I want to pitch."
Of course, no one has forgotten what Valenzuela did during his 29 days of pitching in 1981, the year his team won the World Series and Valenzuela won the National League rookie of the year and Cy Young awards. He threw five different pitches, met with two different presidents and earned $42,500. Simple and effective.
But nobody has forgotten what Fernando Valenzuela did during 26 days of spring training this year. He held out, refusing to report to camp without a $1 million per year contract. This was neither simple nor effective.
The Dodgers offered $350,000, pointing out that no second-year player in baseball history had made more. Gradually, painfully, agent Tony DeMarco, attorney Dick Moss and Valenzuela made their pitch a sinker: $450,000 per year and $200,000 in incentives. The Dodgers continued to hold out.
Valenzuela did not. He reported March 23 under protest and without signing a contract that could have included $100,000 in incentives. It was the principle, he said. "They have treated me like a child," Valenzuela said in a prepared statement.
Last year, the question about Valenzuela was "How could he do this?" The question this year is the same, except now it applies to a holdout, not a shutout. Nobody notices his tummy expanse, only his expense.
In his first outing at Vero Beach, Fla., against the Red Sox, Valenzuela's two innings of relief provoked boos and the left-hander from Etchohuaquila said through a translator, "The boos must have been for the Red Sox."
Against the Angels in the Freeway Series at Dodger Stadium, the boos increased, especially when he didn't run out a ground ball. "A lot of people are here from Anaheim. The negative reaction was because of that," said Valenzuela, who doesn't speak English, but certainly understands the universal language of the boo.
So his response to today's boos, which grew weaker as Valenzuela grew stronger, was as consistent as the zeroes he placed on the scoreboard. "Probably the boos were because San Diego is so close to Los Angeles," said Valenzuela.
Dodger Pitching Coach Ron Perranoski, without knowing Valenzuela's response today but fully aware of his recent past, said, "I was sitting with Fernando in the bullpen before the game. When they announced his name and there were boos, he laughed. I said to him, 'They are probably booing San Diego.' He nodded and smiled. He jokes about serious things sometimes. It doesn't affect him."
Here in Los Angeles, which has a larger Spanish-speaking population than every Mexican city except Mexico City, the reaction toward the holdout has been strong. He is a symbol, a hero. He may be just 21 years old, but David was just a boy when he slew Goliath.
Much of the anger has been directed toward DeMarco, who is in Mexico and unavailable for comment.
Said Rudy Garcia, sports editor of 40 years of La Opinion, the Spanish daily in Los Angeles, "Most Mexican people feel he has been exploited by De Marco. They feel if DeMarco had told Fernando he'd get him $250,000, then Fernando would have been satisfied. In Mexico, that much money makes him a damn millionaire."
Jaime Jarrin, who has broadcast Dodger games in Spanish for 24 years, said, "About 80 percent of the Spanish community is against Mr. DeMarco. They feared Fernando would sit out the whole season. They feared losing him. When they boo Fernando, they are booing the holdout, not him."
Still, there are those who direct their anger toward Valenzuela. Two years ago he came up in September and went 2-0 as a reliever. Then last season his 13-7 record, his 2.48 earned run average and his seven shutouts represented more than a mania. They represented incorruptibility in a year when baseball was ravaged by the players' strike. Valenzuela gave a maximum performance while making only $10,000 over the major league minimum.
This year, Valenzuela is no longer innocent. He is rich.
Said Angel Prada, sports editor of the Spanish weekly, La Voz Libre, "During the holdout some people wanted Fernando back in Mexico to work in the fields for $3 a day."
Garcia added, "Some Mexicans think he has forgotten his background."
When Garcia's paper editorialized about the holdout, the sports editor feared an uproar. "I thought we might get hit with an incendiary bomb. But we showed how Fernando was being handled poorly, just doing what he was told. We got a favorable response."
Still, some fans feel betrayed. To win them back, Valenzuela must win. Everyone, after all, loves a winner.
Said Garcia, of La Opinion, "His star has diminished. He will have to redeem himself. Nobody can make him what he was--only himself. A few wins and he will be the same as before.
"If he doesn't win, the Spanish community will think two things. First, that he wasn't in shape and that his agent failed. Second, they will think that he was a one-year pitcher. It would be a great blow to Mexican people."
Perranoski remembers the team's last pitching holdout extraordinaire. That was Sandy Koufax in 1966; he emerged from the holdout and went 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA. "It didn't bother Koufax, did it? Fern (Valenzuela) has the best poise I've ever seen. This is still spring training for him. We'll take him slowly," Perranoski said.
So as he enters his second season--one year after his near deification and one year before his inevitable salary arbitration--Valenzuela's popularity traces the contortions of his screwball.
In the left field Dodger gift shop, his poster, a big seller last season, no longer graces the wall. A dozen of them rest in cellophane in a trash can with a Dodger insignia on it. Perhaps it is cruel symbolism. "The interest in Fernando isn't like last year," said the woman behind the gift shop counter.
His mailbox is no longer phenom-full, but there is one reason for that, according to longtime Dodger equipment manager Nobe Kawano. "Fernando and (Steve) Garvey get the most mail. That will change now only because in the offseason Fernando got married and Garvey got divorced."
Catcher Mike Scioscia, one of Valenzuela's closest friends on the team, put things in Dodger Blue perspective when he said simply: "We need him."