One of those no-hitters that punctuated June went by too quickly. It followed in the backwash of Dave Stewart and soon was trumped by Andy Hawkins. In newspaper terms, Friday night on the West Coast is the ideal time to do anything and escape notice. Baseball needed a longer moment to pause and consider Fernando Valenzuela.
The last couple of decades have been grand for pitchers. Jim Palmer is expected momentarily at the Hall of Fame. Tom Seaver waits on deck. Other recent retirees -- Fergie Jenkins, Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry -- crowd the waiting room. Nolan Ryan, their contemporary, carries on. Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens and the rest of a fine new batch promise to go as far.
But just in case he doesn't get much further, think of what Valenzuela has done. It sounds sad and strange to put it that way. After all, according to his birth certificate, Valenzuela will not reach 30 until November. But he was an old 15 in Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico. Major league scouts, not the most polite body of men, counted the rings of wrinkles around his neck. "I know one thing for sure," reported San Francisco bird-dog Grady Hatton. "He's got a chance to be a member of the all-ugly club."
Hatton was wrong about that. Valenzuela has a face like a jack-o'-lantern's and a body that tends naturally to abundance. But he is a handsome man, possibly the most handsome man in the league. Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda was the first to see it in 1981. "People tell me that Fernando is portly," he said. "They also tell me he has a couple of gaps between his teeth. But I look at him and I can't decide whether he reminds me of Rock Hudson or Robert Redford."
Lasorda was not talking only about the pitcher, whose first few years were dazzling. Like most managers, but especially those who failed as players and were acquainted with the winter leagues, Lasorda speaks a pidgin Spanish (roughly the equal of his English) and understands the hardship Valenzuela knew breaking into the big leagues that Bret Saberhagen did not.
"The only words with which I'm able to communicate with him," catcher Mike Scioscia said at first, "are beer, light beer and tacos. So when he gets into trouble in a game, I call time and walk to the mound for a conference. I say to him, 'Beer, light beer and tacos.' He nods. I then call for a screwball, he strikes the man out and we win the game."
Valenzuela picked up the screwball from reliever Bobby Castillo and coach Ron Perranoski in two weeks. By his own calculation, Carl Hubbell took six years to learn it. After throwing a scroogie for 16 seasons, Hubbell's left arm hung palm-out at rest.
Starting thunderously -- not just winning games but finishing them -- Valenzuela was the NL rookie of the year and Cy Young Award winner of 1981. Because it was an abbreviated strike season, his 13-7 record may not look like much in years to come. His entire resume' may be underwhelming. Only once has he won 20 games. That's the trouble with this rotisserie age, with painting portraits entirely by the numbers. History can miss the full picture, the whole man.
From opening day of 1981 through August 1988, when his shoulder temporarily gave out, Valenzuela went 255 games without missing a start. He was good for 250 to 300 innings a year, striking out 200 to 250 batters along the way. He never skipped a turn. He never complained.
Cincinnati coach Tony Perez, a proud Cuban, believes there are two kinds of Latin ballplayers: those who fit the various stereotypes, and those who hate the stereotyping so much that they tend to confront anyone in the clubhouse who would contribute to it. Valenzuela is a third type, who, atop the mound and away from it, has demonstrated a serene character, dignity and decency. Whether earning the minimum wage or $2 million a year, he has managed to keep faith with two communities, avoiding the sexual and pharmaceutical clouds that commonly attend roller-coaster celebrity.
With fireworks, he brought the neighborhood of Chavez Ravine into Dodger Stadium. Then, after the comet passed, the workman settled in for the longer haul, and in his honest way the last couple of years he has been just as dazzling. After the no-hitter, Valenzuela immediately resumed being relentlessly unspectacular, happily handing back the spotlight to Dominican strikeout artist Ramon Martinez. "Now that I can really speak English," Valenzuela said mock-forlornly, "nobody wants to talk to me anymore."
No matter what Scioscia thought, Valenzuela always understood more than he let on. Away from his teammates, he seldom ordered beer, light beer and tacos. He would run his finger down promising menus and stop instinctively at adventurous spots. "I was often surprised," he said, "but I was never disappointed."
One year at spring training, umpire Ed Vargo was schooling the Dodger pitchers on the balk rule, using Valenzuela's move to first base for an illustration. Mistakenly, Vargo kept referring to him as "Orlando" Valenzuela.
"Mr. Vargo," he finally spoke up, as properly as Sir John Gielgud. "I am not Orlando. I am Tampa."
They are all cities of angels.