When Stephen Strasburg first toed a major league pitcher’s rubber on June 8, 2010, the media attention was amazing.
Hordes of reporters were dispatched to Washington, DC, the Nationals sold out their home game with the Pittsburgh Pirates (the lowly Pirates!), and throngs of fans lined up to buy Strasburg jerseys and T-shirts.
Strasburg sensationalism was born!
He did not disappoint. Strasburg dominated the weak Pirates lineup to a tune of seven innings, allowing four hits, two earned runs, and striking out an amazing 14 batters, the last seven in a row.
After blowing away Adam LaRoche to end the seventh, Strasburg left the mound (everyone knew he was done for the day) to a rousing standing ovation, a good lead, and eventually his first victory.
It was a good moment for Major League Baseball.
But as one of my old baseball coaches was fond of saying, “If you think that was good, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
Strasburg’s debut, and his subsequent five additional starts, do not even compare to the wild ride in 1981 ushered into baseball by Fernandomania, the phenomenon which was Fernando Valenzuela.
While Strasburg allowed two earned runs in his first major league start, Fernando did not allow his second earned run until his SIXTH start of his rookie season.
Check out his game log from 1981 here.
After the first eight starts of his rookie season as a Los Angeles Dodger, Valenzuela was 8-0 with a 0.50 ERA.
Relying on a screwball that he only began throwing a year earlier, Valenzuela threw seven complete games and five shutouts—including 36 consecutive scoreless innings—in those first eight starts.
In two other games he allowed only one run, and the only time he did not throw a “complete game” was a 10-inning affair in Montreal where he went nine innings.
You had to be there to appreciate the control that Fernando Valenzuela had over the hitters in the National League AND the entire baseball world.
He was similar to Babe Ruth in stature, both in his popularity and in his physique. Like the Babe, Valenzuela was also a pretty good hitter and a really good left-handed pitcher.
His tremendous 1981 season, however, was not his beginning.
After being signed out of the Mexican League, Valenzuela was promoted in late 1980 during the Dodgers‘ pennant run, where he posted a 2-0 record, one save, and a 0.00 ERA in 10 relief appearances (17.2 innings).
Add in the two wins and 17.2 scoreless innings from late in 1980, and after his first 18 major league appearances, Valenzuela had a 10-0 record with a 0.37 ERA.
His success spurred a phenomenon called Fernandomania, and while the Los Angeles Latino community were already big baseball fans, after “El Toro” (Valenzuela’s nickname) came alive, the Latin fans were now out rooting in full force.
People of all types clamored for his rookie baseball cards (I know, as I just began as a card dealer back then), and Fernando had to give press conferences before every road series.
When he visited the New York market for a June road series, Valenzuela was met by almost a hundred photographers, and that did not include all the TV cameras and print reporters.
I remember my junior year in high school, hanging out with friends at someone’s house on May 8, watching that Friday night game in New York that Fernando pitched against the Mets.
A bad Met team (managed by Joe Torre) drew almost 40,000 fans that night to see Valenzuela. He did not disappoint, posting his eighth straight win and fifth shutout.
While Strasburg has been hyped due to the over-reaching 24-hour media outlets, Fernandomania was due mainly because of the person. Valenzuela was a quiet, unassuming 20-year-old Latino with a baby face and big smile.
At that time ESPN was still doing mostly log-rolling championships and world’s strongest man competitions.
They did not have the presence they do now.
Even 20 years later, Fernandomania still is discussed.
Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda said, “It happened so fast, it was like a forest fire…he attracted crowds on the road and at home like you’ve never seen. Fernandomania was something I will never forget.”
Valenzuela was an instant celebrity, and his presence began the marketing of Latin sports figures to a Latin market hungry for Latin heroes. His presence is the sole reason the Dodgers led the National League in attendance both in 1982 and 1983.
Fernando’s patented delivery (see photo), including him “looking to the sky” before every pitch, was in itself a separate phenomenon.
Fernando only went 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA, but he missed two months’ worth of starts due to the 1981 players strike.
Stephen Strasburg is a really good pitcher with a bright future. He throws the ball up to 103 MPH, and that fastball is only his third best pitch after his 90 MPH change-up and knee-buckling curve ball.
But all the hype and following he has now does not captivate an entire nation (and two distinct cultures) like Fernando Valenzuela did in 1981.
Valenzuela was only a 173-153, 3.54 ERA pitcher for his career, and while he was dropped from Hall of Fame voting in 2004, his early career, and the madness which ensued, were definitely Hall of Fame worthy.
There will never be another player who had the stature and charisma so early and so young as Fernando Valenzuela.