“He threw a screwball. Who threw a screwball, other than, like, Carl Hubbell decades earlier or Bugs Bunny?” Remembering Fernando Valenzuela’s burst into Major League baseball in 1981, longtime Dodgers fan Paul Haddad still sounds thrilled. And footage of young Valenzuela’s pitching shows why: at just 19 years old, the left-hander was both remarkably poised and frankly baffling to his opponents. As Stan Brooks, another fan, says, “It wasn’t that he had unbelievable speed, but there was so much movement that no one quite knew where the ball was gonna drop.”
Fernando Valenzuela was a surprise in all kinds of ways. But, according to Fernando Nation, which premieres in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series on 26 October, the adulation he inspired was hardly incidental. Charming and gifted, the pitcher also represented the expectations and hopes of assorted communities. Not least of these the Mexican and Mexican American population of Los Angeles, whose relationships with the Dodgers and Ronald Reagan’s administration were plainly strained in 1981.
The story of “Fernando Nation” is “like a movie” and “almost mythical.” And in the U.S., it’s usually compared to well-known predecessors, like Horatio Alger and Cinderella. What you see in his story depends in part on your own framing. “Do you sometimes feel that people don’t know the real Fernando?” asks Valenzuela’s interviewer. “I think people know the real one,” he answers. “Or probably not. I don’t know.”
The film includes basic facts, Valenzuela’s recollections shaping them — subtly. The youngest of 12 children, Valenzuela was born into poverty in the Mexican village of Etchohuaquila. “As a child, there were no dreams,” he says now. “Like most children, I think, you just live from day to day.” Playing baseball as a youngster, he says he didn’t imagine making the big leagues, but only tried to improve his own game “step by step.”
When he was signed by the Dodgers in 1979, Valenzuela could have no idea of his future. The team picked up his Liga Mexicana de Beisbol (Mexican Baseball League) contract for $120,000 and brought him into a time and place full of turmoil. Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley had not only moved his team from Brooklyn amid fan protests in 1957, but he also built a new stadium in Chávez Ravine, already notorious as the site of the 10-year long Battle of Chávez Ravine (1951–1961), when some residents resisted giving up their property to public ownership (the city had plans for a public housing project that never materialized). Here, Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers of America, recounts the rise of the Chicano Movement, over footage of sheriffs assaulting dark-skinned citizens.
O’Malley’s purchase of the land and the erection of Dodger Stadium in 1962 didn’t help. Huerta says, “Mexicans, for the most part, wouldn’t go,” the stadium a reminder of injustices. The arrival of Fernando Valenzuela — pursued by scouts in search of a “”Mexican Koufax” — changed that. Called up to the Dodgers from the double-A team in September 1980, he helped the team win the division championship. He started the following season with eight wins in eight starts, and an astounding ERA of 0.50. That year, the Dodgers beat their longtime rivals the Yankees to win the World Series for the first time since 1965.
Even as Fernando Nation recounts the happy delirium of “Fernandomania,” it offers hints of the obstacles Valenzuela faced. Of course, as he notes quietly, the transition from Mexico to the U.S. was complicated. “I think coming to other customs from another culture, another language, it’s a little bit difficult. I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. The film shows footage of an early encounter with reporters, with Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda pretending to translate for him, making up answers (“He said he loves the Dodgers organization, he says he loves to play for Tom Lasorda”), to much laughter. Even as Valenzuela can’t understand Lasorda or the joke, he smiles along.
And yet, even as the film includes footage of Reagan announcing, in 1981, “Let us begin a new era of national renewal,” the reality is that unemployment is high and inspiring racist anxieties concerning what Walter Cronkite terms the “growing Hispanic presence.” An interview with a woman standing next to another woman on the street makes clear the film is drawing parallels between then and now: “How many people carry passports?” she asks her interviewer. “Everybody carries a license and they accept your word that you’re a citizen. But, they’re not gonna accept hers, because she’s dark.”
Valenzuela’s popularity helped to smooth over these tensions and made the Dodgers a lot of money, via increased ticket sales, as well as merchandise, from Number 34 jerseys to bobble-heads. The pitcher’s success meant something specific to Latino fans. Poet Luis Rodriguez says, “The Chicano movement did bring a lot of people to the streets, and I was part of that. But here,” he goes on, “people were coming to Dodger Stadium and there was still a sense of pride. For us, it was like a Mexican could be as good as anybody.”
Sort of. If the documentary doesn’t pound the point, it does expose the ongoing contradictions and widespread casual racism that shaped Valenzuela’s experience. As a players’ strike looms in 1981, Johnny Carson jokes, “The bad news is there may be a baseball strike tomorrow. The good news is, Reggie Jackson just offered Fernando Valenzuela a job as a gardener.” And when Valenzuela attends a White House luncheon with Reagan and Mexican president Lopez Portillo, a television reporter calls him “Mexico’s most documented migrant. He is now this country’s most sought after guest worker.”
Even being so “sought after,” Valenzuela has to struggle to be paid fairly. When he and his agent Dick Moss seek reasonable compensation, he runs into predictable resistance from management as well as some name-calling by fans. As Valenzuela says at a press conference at the time, “We have been treated as children asking for favors. I am only 21 years old, but I am not a boy. I am a man and I have the same need to be considered with dignity and respect as does every other man.”
Now roundly revered and rightly celebrated in Fernando Nation, Valenzuela represents both the opportunities for great athletes and the continuing costs of racism in the U.S.