Day 11 of 2023 baseball books: There was something in the air that night, the stars were bright, Fernandomania

“Daybreak at Chavez Ravine: Fernandomania
and the Remaking of the Los Angeles Dodgers”

The author:
Erik Sherman

The publishing info:
University of Nebraska Press
280 pages; $32.95
To be released May 1, 2023

The links:
The publishers website
The authors website
At TheLastBookStoreLA
At Chaucer’s Books
At BookSoup

The review in 90 feet or less

The screwball randomness of the Dodgers’ decades-late declaration that it will finally retire Fernando Valenzuela’s number 34 this coming August is … is ….

“It’s about damn time,” Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote last February, as the team was patting itself on the back by making the announcement at their off-season Dodger FanFest gathering. That includes the irony that the announcement came issued on a piece of paper to the media “for immediate release.”

Immediately, we laughed.

“The single question I get asked more than any other is, ‘When are you going to retire Fernando Valenzuela’s number?’” team president and CEO Stan Kasten is quoted in the Plaschke piece. “The answer is, this year.”

Only 11 years after Kasten and his Guggenheim Baseball Management group leveraged a bidding-war purchase of the franchise, wrestling it away from Ballpark Frank McCourt.

At least they didn’t listen more to their marketing team wait until ’34 – as in 2034 – to get this done.

Short story long …

For better or worse, McCourt adhered to at least one franchise tradition that went back to the O’Malley days of the 1970s — resisting the retirement of any Dodgers’ uniform number unless the player (or manager) had a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame (as well as having spent a considerable amount of time with the team. Ask Mike Piazza how that plays out these days).

Valenzuela’s retirement will increase the list of Brooklyn-L.A. Dodgers numbers taken out of circulation to 12. Of those, all but two will be Baseball Hall members – Valenzuela, plus longtime franchise infielder and beloved coach Jim Gilliam (19), who died suddenly during the 1978 World Series and the team decided it would honor him.

Having 12 retired numbers, considering the team’s history, isn’t too many at all. Consider the New York Yankees’ willy-nilly approach has led to 22 number retirements, 10 of whom are not in the Baseball Hall. As a result, no one can wear a single-digit number any longer.  

This Valenzuela honor might have made more sense in 2021, 40 years after his debut, but COVID derailed any potential plans (the team decision-makers have intimated). That magical 1981 Rookie of the Year/Cy Young Award season included the Dodgers’ improbable run to the strike-infested 1981 World Series. That year, Valenzuela led the league with eight shutouts, 11 complete games, 192 innings in 25 appearances (averaging more than seven innings per start) and 180 strikeouts. The NL’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game when the game decided to come back out of the strike, Valenzuela would make six straight Mid-Season Classic appearances and be in the top five in voting for the Cy Young and four times for MVP.

It’s been 37 years since he led the major leagues with 21 wins and 20 complete games in 34 starts, and won a Gold Glove. He narrowly lost the NL Cy Young Award to Mike Scott.

It was also 32 years ago – March 28, 1991, on the last day of spring training – the team lost its collective mind and released him. He was 30 years old but his left arm, shoulder, elbow and everything in between had racked up more than 2,300 innings, as well as more than 100 complete games in 331 appearances, winning 141 of them. Add to that a post-season record of 5-1 with a 1.98 ERA in eight games.

It was heartbreaking.

Was he running out of steam? Was he due for a large contract? Probably yes to both.

Valenzuela was somewhat on borrowed time considering he couldn’t pitch in the 1988 post season and World Series title run because of injury. His ERA in his last four years in L.A. – 1987 through ’90 – was over 4.00, reflected in a combined W-L record of 42-50. During that window, he also led NL at one point or another in earned runs allowed, hits allowed, walks allowed and wild pitchers.

But, still, he was Fernando. He just needed a reboot.

With new-found freedom, he unnecessarily wore the uniforms of the Angels (number 36, which still isn’t retired!), Orioles, Phillies, Padres and Cardinals. He would squeeze out 600 more innings – most effectively, a 13-win season for the Padres in ’96 — before he stepped away on his own terms in 1997 at age 36.

In 17 seasons, his 173 wins in 453 games include a 3.54 ERA and 2,074 strike outs. That doesn’t factor in the 1992 season when he pitched in Mexico at age 31 after he was released by the Angels and wanted to get away from everything.

Also note: His 41.5 career WAR is the greatest of any Mexican-born MLB player.

To Dodgers fans, “Fernandomania” has never ended. The No. 34 replica jerseys with the letters “VALENZUELA” (condensed more across the shoulders far more when they were in 1981 when one almost couldn’t see the “V” at the start or “A” at the end as it spread almost under his left and right arm pits) remain a consistent reminder that his cultural currency has value.

The best the Dodgers franchise could pull together in the last decade was asking him to come back as a Spanish-language broadcaster and team ambassador.

“He gave them everything he had,” a fan told the L.A. Times for a piece about Valenzuela’s attempted comeback in 1991. “It’s like a worker when he’s all used up and the boss gets rid of him because he’s of no use anymore.”

Making up for it this year includes having him as the cover boy for both their annual media guide and their pre-season yearbook.

What’s the collateral damage of the Dodgers’ think-tankers tanking on this number retirement for so long?

Mike Brito, the influential scout who found and signed Valenzuela, died in July of 2022 and will miss this retirement ceremony. Same for Ralph Avilia, another legendary Dodgers’ scout for his work south of the border, who died last January.

Bobby Castillo, the Dodgers’ local-born relief pitcher who taught the screwball to Valenzula, six years his younger, died in June of 2014.

Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers manager who went with him as that 1981 Opening Day starter when most of his top guns were injured, and let him pitch a complete game, died in early 2021 and will miss this. Al Campanis, the team’s general manager who put Valenzuela on the roster, died in 1998. Ben Wade, the team’s scouting director when Valenzuela was signed, died in 2002.

Vin Scully, who told Dodgers fans to throw their sombrero to the sky after Valenzuela’s 1990 no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals at Dodger Stadium, died in August of 2022 and will miss this.

The hope is former Spanish-language Hall of Fame broadcaster Jaime Jarrin, who just turned 87 and is now retired, can be there in August. Same with former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, who just turned 85, and long-time teammate Manny Mota, who also just turned 85.

In a recent piece for The Athletic, Fabian Ardaya quotes Jarrin: “It’s something that was long overdue … I don’t know why they waited. They could have done this several years ago. But now they’re retiring the number, so it’s fantastic …He belongs there…. His number will be there forever.”

The tribute will come on an otherwise nothing-happening weekend in August, against an opponent, the Colorado Rockies, that wasn’t even around when Valenzuela was pitching for the Dodgers. Expect fans to pay inflated ticket prices to the three games in order to get some give-away trinkets.

Valenzuela had been in this Think Blue purgatory called “Legends of Dodgers Baseball (presented by Bank of America),” a quasi-elevated category the team had put him in with Steve Garvey, Maury Wills, Kirk Gibson and Don Newcomb (and this summer will add Mota and Orel Hershiser) but with no number-retirement ceremony expected to go with it.

Until now.

So many questions …

When Erik Sherman decided to dive into this well-researched and context-rich book about Valenzuela’s life and times, he included a final chapter called “Legacy,” where he addressed not only this lack-of-number-retirement status, but also why Valenzuela hasn’t drawn enough attention to be included in Cooperstown’s hallowed shrine.

Review copies of Sherman’s book came out in February, a couple of weeks after the Dodgers-Valenzuela announcement. It was a bit too late to rewrite an update. Sherman, a New York-based writer, is likely to be recognized by Dodgers-faithful readers as the resourceful author who seemed to single-handedly produced “Out At Home: The True Glenn Burke – Baseball’s First Openly Gay Player” in 2015 (we reviewed here) and then referenced again as we reviewed Andrew Maraniss’ “Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke: The First Openly Gay MLB Player and Inventor of the High Five” in 2021.

In this case, Sherman may have caught a nice break having this book ready to release this season as the Valenzuela spotlight will re-intensify after so many years of being quite dormant.

Sherman, having an ESPN “30 For 30” documentary from 2010 called “Fernando Nation” to access, as well as Jason Turbow’s well-received “The Bled Blue: Fermandomania, Strike-Season Mayhem and the Weirdest Championship Baseball Had Ever Seen” about the 1981 Dodgers in 2019, had to do a lot of his own refresh work to fill in many gaps.

That included connecting with Dodgers team historian Mark Langill and former Dodgers GM Fred Claire, who was in the team’s communications department when Valenzuela arrived in ’81 and made the final decision on his release in ’91.

Claire’s perspective of that roster move may be the most revealing part of this book after all these years.

Along the way, Sherman picks up fresh perspectives from former Valenzuela teammates like Rick Monday, Dusty Baker, Steve Garvey, Jerry Reuss, Pedro Guerrero and Tom Niedenfuer. Sherman also has great nuggets of info from Bruce Bochy, who managed Valenzuela in his three seasons in San Diego and played against him as a member of the Giants.

The plight of the Mexican immigrant is just as important narrative weaved into this.

Sherman is bold in his preface to establish three major talking points:

= Valenzuela was to Latinos what Jackie Robinson was to Black Americans.

= Whether he professed to be or not, Valenzuela had become a reflection of the great Mexican American civil rights icon Cesar Chavez, a leader to a people largely doing low-paid manual labor. They had come to believe if Fernando could succeed, so could they. He changed their lives. He was their salvation.

= A strong argument can be made that he introduced baseball to more people around the world than any ballplayer who has ever lived.

The mystique Valenzuela created by shying away from any biographies or autobiographies, or even getting involved in these kind of heady discussions, are what make this book even more intriguing.

Author Q&A

Q: Maybe you can diplomatically explain how in your book, in the final chapter that is titled “Legacy,” you document reasons given over the years about why Fernando Valenzuela’s No. 34 hasn’t been retired – and then it comes to pass that this most recent off-season, the Dodgers are all giddy about that fact it will now do it, and will happen in August?

A: Well, media and the fans have been clamoring for years for the Dodgers to break their unwritten rule of retiring only Dodgers’ HOFers numbers (with Junior Gilliam the only exception as a sentimental favorite of the O’Malley’s when he passed suddenly) and do so with Fernando.  But here’s the thing. My publisher was requested to send a few advanced copies to Dodger executives when they came out in early February. And, lo-and-behold, three weeks later they make the announcement about Fernando’s Number 34!  So I am owning it!  Maybe my Legacy chapter was the last straw!

Q: Another thing in that chapter is why Valenzuela hasn’t drawn much attention for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Why do you think that’s the case? It is worth noting you think he could at least deserve the Buck O’Neil Award for those who “enhanced baseball’s positive impact on society, broadened the game’s appeal and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable” to what O’Neil showed.

A: It’s purely a numbers’ game.  Fernando only had six truly “great” seasons and the HOF voters like to see 10.  But the voters should really look at people who greatly impacted the game and an argument can be made that nobody in baseball history did so more than Fernando.  He brought Mexicans from outside the shadows at ballparks all over America.  And that impact is still felt today.  The O’Neil Award is a no-brainer by it’s very definition.

Q: There are the larger cultural and social aspects to this story as you’ve pointed out – links to Cesar Chavez and Jackie Robinson. As well as the plight of the Mexican immigrant. What do you hope readers take away from those narratives you’ve brought up as a broader understanding of what Valenzuela meant?

A: I hope they take away what Fernando meant to the average Mexican, Mexican-American and Latino in terms of how they can improve their own lives.  Here was a 20 year old, overweight, unsophisticated young man from an impoverished Mexican town that proved he could be the best in the world at his profession for a given period of time.  He reminded them of their older brother or uncle—an everyman—who could do great things.  He inspired them to become not just ballplayers, but doctors, lawyers, teachers and professionals.  If he could do it, so could they.  He was to Mexicans what Jackie Robinson was to African-Americans.  And the similarities to Chavez were remarkable—both impacted millions, both were not public speakers, both were not the classic physical specimens that you might envision of a hero. 

Q: You also hope is Fernando might realize from this book the impact he made on society and his culture. How might you measure that … when there is a chance for an update and you maybe can talk to him about it?

A: I will likely see him next week at Dodger Stadium.  That should be interesting, as I don’t know what to expect.  I’ve spent three years of my life working on his life story and have interviewed nearly a hundred people both inside and outside his inner circle.  Usually a biography is a power thing for the subject.  Hopefully, he is moved, though there is a chance he won’t care.  He relishes his privacy and is still quite shy.  I am enamored by what his reaction will be. 

Q: How do you think not being able to coax any interviews for Valenzuela affected the content of this project?

A: I’ve been told it’s probably a better book this way because it’s completely impartial.  In other words, I think a biography can provide more details and truths than an autobiography.  I’ve met him briefly before.  He’s a nice man, but not exactly loquacious.  I would have liked the opportunity to interview him to see what he would have revealed, though he rarely gives them and has turned down substantial sums of money for his life story whether on the page or screen. 

Mike Brito and Fernando Valenzuela in March 2012 at Camelback Ranch-Glendale in Phoenix, Arizona.
© Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers

Q: Of all the people you were able to draw upon, where do you think you got your best insights about Valenzuela from?

A: Probably first and foremost from his inner circle—Jaime Jarrin, Pepe Yniguez, Mike Brito—but also from writers like Lyle Spencer and team historian Mark Langill.  Teammates like Dusty Baker, Steve Garvey, Rick Monday, Pedro Guerrero, Tom Niedenfuer, and Jerry Reuss were also terrific.  They all knew him extremely well.

Q: Who else would you have wanted to interview for this? Mike Scioscia? Anyone else?

A: Yes, I really wanted Scioscia as he was Fernando’s primary catcher.  Ron Cey was another, but probably because he was working on his own book he didn’t agree to speak with me.  I have met Ron in the past — we had a wonderful conversation.  So I understand why he didn’t want to if he had his own book coming out at the same time.  That’s my guess.

Q: What most impressed you about Valenzuela’s career from a numbers standpoint?

A: Statistically, no starting pitcher in history began his career better than Fernando.  He was unhittable the first half of the ’81 season.  But I must say, his no-hitter in ’90 was so impressive because some of his talent had eroded by that time.  That accomplishment was based on grit and truly learning how to pitch.  In my mind, the best game he ever pitched was Game Five against the Expos in the NLCS.  Freezing temps and he pitched an absolute gem to put the Dodgers in the World Series.

Q: Do you think in today’s game, with Shohei Ohtani doing what he’s been doing with his pitching arm and at the plate, there might have been more thought given to Fernando Valenzuela, who had two Silver Slugger Awards, possibly being a two-way player – again, with the DH in place in the National League?

A: Excellent point!  Yes, I think they would have let him hit — especially early in his career. 

Q: Has Valenzuela’s career as a broadcaster enhanced his status with the franchise, since it is apparent he could have easily faded into the sunset and, considering how the Dodgers once dropped him, never looked back at L.A.?

A: His broadcasting kept his Dodgers’ legacy alive.  It’s been said that Jaime Jarrin was responsible for convincing to come back to the Dodgers’ family in that role.  Fernando was bitter when the Dodgers cut him at the end of Spring Training in ’91. 

How it goes in the scorebook

Like the number retirement ceremony, a book like this has been too long in arriving, but we can’t always pick the time and place that we deem to be most authentic and holistic.

It’s now, so pay attention.

Just as readers had to come to terms of the realities of the Dodgers’ creation and fruition in L.A. with Eric Nusbaum’s 2020 gem “Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers and the Lives Caught in Between,” and Jerald Podair’s 2019 “City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles” – as well as Don Normark’s 1999 “Chavez Ravine, 1940: A Los Angeles Story” and its subsequent documentary – “Daybreak at Chavez Ravine” and the story of Fernandomaina will have to be in the same ballpark of local historic literary reckoning.

You can look it up: More to ponder

== An excerpt of Chapter 19 as posted on Howard Cole’s “Off Base” Substack site.

== It would be prudent to find one of the local book store/signings for Sherman coming up:
Wednesday, May 3: Book Soup, West Hollywood at 7 p.m.
Thursday, May 4: Chevaliers Books, Los Angeles at 6 p.m.
Sunday, May 7: Chaucer’s Books, Santa Barbara at 4 p.m.

== Other books in the Sherman pipeline include:
= “Two Sides of Glory: The 1986 Boston Red Sox in Their Own Words” (2021, University of Nebraska Press) with our review here.
= “After the Miracle: The Lasting Brotherhood of the ’69 Mets” (2019, Simon & Schuster)
= “Davey Johnson: My Wild Ride in Baseball and Beyond,” (2018, Triumph Books) with our review here.
= “Kings of Queens: Life Beyond Baseball with the ’86 Mets” (2016, Berkley Books)
= “Mookie: Life, Baseball and the ’86 Mets” (2014, Berkley Books)
= “Steve Blass: A Pirate for Life” (2012, Triumph Books)

== A Society for American Baseball Research profile on Fernandomania is here.

== We did not forget: Illustration credit for artwork at the top of this post: Tom Forget /


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