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Gustavo Arellano: The Gospel of Fernandomania: Valenzuela remains a Mexican American icon

Gustavo Arellano, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Baseball

LOS ANGELES — If you were a young Mexican Catholic boy growing up in 1980s Southern California, your family taught you at least three gestures based on the Holy Cross. Each part of this trinity was as intricate and important and integral to our identity as the others in our young minds, repeated again and again until the rituals became as natural as breathing.

One was obviously the sign of the cross, introduced by our mothers and aunts whenever we needed to connect with God and refined at la doctrina (catechism class). Another came from our richer cousins: the Konami Code, a secret joystick cipher that unlocked all sorts of advantages in the Nintendo games we played at their homes. Up-up, down-down, left-right left-right, and vámonos to the Garden of Unlimited Ammo and Multiple Lives.

But the most important rite came from our fathers and uncles and required no tutoring. It was as if the elaborate windup of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela was already within us.

We practiced in our rooms and in front of each other for the moment our elders requested we do it for a dollar or five or at least an "Así mero, mijo" ["Atta boy"]. I haven't attempted the windup in more than 30 years, but the move is muscle memory for me and thousands of my now-middle-aged peers, left-handers and right-handers alike.

Start with your hands clasped near your waist. Lift them up above your head while glimpsing toward heaven. Fling your arm as far back as possible, then swing it across your chest to rain down deliverance at imaginary batters with no prayer against you.

It's not a stretch or blasphemous to describe Valenzuela in such terms, or even original. Years after the fact, Vin Scully famously described the frenzy of Fernandomania as a "religious experience." While it unfolded, the Dodgers broadcaster quickly joined the believers. Watch a YouTube clip from May 8, 1981, in which Valenzuela was about to finish off a seven-hit, 11-strikeout shutout against the host New York Mets.

 

"And once again, a large crowd has come out full of the question, 'Is he for real?' " Scully told the television audience back home. "And once again, the large crowd is one inning away from getting a shocking answer."

The devout Scully knew such messaging worked because Valenzuela truly was a biblical hero of multitudes. The David-like figure who helped his ballclub beat those modern-day Philistines called the New York Yankees in the 1981 World Series. A John the Baptist who made way for more Latinos in professional baseball. The peacemaker in the Dodgers' relationship with Chicano fans a quarter-century after the original sin of Chavez Ravine.

This is the Fernando we remember because we'd rather not remember his fall. Because even as my older male relatives spread his gospel, Valenzuela's career was returning to dust. The only time I saw him play in person was not as a Dodger but when he signed with the California Angels in 1991 for a two-game stint that went nowhere. My younger primos laughed that we'd want to go see a washed-up player. They didn't want to "lanzar como Fernando" — throw like Fernando — the way my older cousins used to. They'd rather run like Rickey Henderson, pitch like Randy Johnson, hit like Ken Griffey Jr.

Mexican baseball fans in Southern California have waited in vain for a Second Coming of Fernandomania ever since. Every couple of years, a pretender — Andre Ethier, Nomar Garciaparra, Adrian Gonzalez, Anthony Rendon — rises but never connects the way Valenzuela did. We embrace lesser prophets such as Julio Urías and Victor Gonzalez, key pitchers from last year's championship Dodgers squad, with the resignation that they're not the One.

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