There was a time when baseball was the most important thing in my life. I was hooked at an early age, as I began playing when I was seven, and I didn’t stop playing competitively until I was twenty-two, when I was cut from the Rio Hondo Community College team. The first Little League team I played on was the Pittsburgh Pirates. We played our games at Garvey Park in Rosemead, fifteen-minutes from Dodgers Stadium.
Because I was on the Pirates, they became one of my favorite professional baseball teams. I admired Pittsburgh’s winning ways, especially during their “We are Family” era of the 70’s. I was a baseball fan, though, and so I liked a lot of other teams, too.
When I was asked by my coach what position I played, I said, “Catcher.” It is, without a doubt, the greatest position in baseball. I became a catcher because Thurmon Munson was a catcher. He played behind the plate for the Yankees in the early 70’s. He died in a plane crash six days before my ninth birthday. This may be the reason why I am deftly afraid of plane travel.
When it came to baseball, I always felt as if I was born too late. I missed out on seeing Mantle and Ruth and DiMaggio and Koufax and Robinson. Their time was up. But my era, the 70’s and 80’s, could also boast some of the greatest names in baseball. We had Rose, Carew, Jackson, Henderson, Ozzie, and Stargell. I studied and emulated these players with deep, emotional, out-of-body conviction, copying the way they walked and spit and banged their bats against their cleats.
Pete Rose was the biggest thief in baseball, and because of Pete, I, too, stole bases. My leads at first base were huge, almost illegal. Pitchers and catchers had no chance in getting me out. My grandma, Maria Del Carmen, made herself sick every time she watched me play. She would tearfully urge me to get back to first and plead with me to shorten my lead. These were the only instances where I didn’t obey my grandma. Covering her eyes, she would yell, “Get back, mijo. Get back! Marcos, get back!” She was my biggest supporter, and I’m sure I gave her nightmares that involved my being picked-off at first or tagged out at second. I never was, though.
Rod Carew made me wish I could switch-hit. Everything he did reeked of sophistication, down to the manner in which he chewed. His left-cheek was perpetually impregnated with a massive wad of tobacco and Wrigley’s Gum. I used to stuff my mouth with unhealthy portions of Big League Chew just to look and feel like Carew. I even became a switch-hitter.
These guys and many other players contributed to the wonder of my childhood, and emulating them was my main hobby. And Every kid I knew imitated one player or another—sometimes even an entire team’s line-up. We all had our favorites, but we made sure to reserve a special place for the one player we each admires above all others. For me, this one player was Fernando Valenzuela.
I was ten year’s old when Fernando debuted for the Dodgers. It was September 15, 1980, to be exact. The Dodgers were playing the Braves in Atlanta, and Fernando came on in relief. I was watching the game with my granda. We moved into her house in Rosemead where we stayed for a few years while my parents saved to buy a house of their own.
Vin Scully, in his unmistakable inflection and tone, said, “And now, coming on in relief for the Dodgers is nineteen-year-old Fernando Valenzuela, from Sonora, Mexico.” I had to squint at the T.V., even though I had perfect vision. I turned to my grandmother and said, “Grandma, is he Mexican?” “Yes, Mijo, he’s Mexican!” All of sudden, this was not another baseball game. Grandma and I scooted towards the front of the couch and leaned in towards the television to get a clearer look at this chubby, pimply kid who was about to take the mound for the Dodgers.
He was Mexican, but he was like no Mexican I had ever seen, and I had already seen hundreds, including my my 123 cousins. He could’ve easily been a primo or a tio or a tio’s friend, but there was something markedly different about this Mexicano. He seemed to float on a mist that carried him peacefully to where he needed to be. In Atlanta, on this night, Fernando drifted towards the mound from the bullpen.
Atop the mound, Manager Tommy Lasorda shoved the ball into his glove, gave him a pat on the back, and left him alone. Fernando promptly dug his place in front of the pitcher’s plate, positioned himself, and proceeded to warm-up. I watched every pitch like a lion watches prey. He was a southpaw with a roundhouse, Vida Blue kick that complimented the big, swinging arch of his left-arm as it snapped like a wet towel towards a crouching Steve Yeager.
His windup was akin to the blossoming of a rare flower. It unfolded, beginning with the strategic backwards step of his right leg, in perfect balance and symmetry. Then with a startled change of direction, Fernando kicked the same right leg upward, thrusting it to its highest point before having to bend it at the knee. Simultaneously, his left-foot was locked into position at the front edge of the pitcher’s plate, the launching point.
While every component in his lower-body pivoted, swung, twisted, and turned, Fernando’s upper-body was conducting its own complex patterns. His hands were in union, his left-hand fiddling with the ball, searching for the sweetest part of the seams. At nineteen-years-old, he already had a “signature pitch.” It was the screwball, a pitch not commonly thrown in the majors, mainly because of the strain and damage it can cause to the elbow, not to mention the difficulty in throwing it. Scully explained the screwball everyone watching and listening. He explained its level of difficulty-how it lacks accuracy and speed. The next day, all the kids in my neighborhood were throwing a screwball.
His windup’s climax too place a split second before he released the ball. As his right leg thrust upward, his knee almost at chin level, his hands in the prayer position covering his face, Fernando’s eyes eerily peeked out just above the top of his glove. When we saw his eyes, we knew. They were the source of his charm. Every pitch emanated from his eyes—his Mexican eyes.
The camera showed a close-up of his face the moment before he let the ball fly. His eyes were completely rolled back into his skull, becoming white dots, scary, like a shark’s eyes before they bite down on prey. There was no vision in them. He wasn’t using them to see! Instead, Fernando used his eyes as a command—a gesture to the heavens to provide his pitches power and accuracy. Finally, just as the pitch was thrown, Fernando turned his face towards the plate, and then we saw, under the bright lights of Chavez Ravine, his young, brown eyes in full focus. Los Angeles had a new hero.
My grandma and I were in awe. We were consumed and taken captive by Fernando and his youth and his indifference. We were watching history. In our two-dimensional world, we had something very tangible. It was eventually given a name: Fernandomania. My grandma and I saw its birth.
From that point on, my grandma and I saw every game he pitched in that season. There were twenty-one games left after Fernando made his debut. He pitched in ten of them. The next year, in 1981, Fernando won the Cy Young Award, the Rookie-of-the-Year Award, the Silver Slugger Award, and the World Series! Los Angeles was in a cataleptic state of Fernandomania!
Every generation says, “Those were the good ol’ days.” Well, those were the good ol’ days. I miss everything about them, especially my grandma. Baseball? Well, it’s no longer a game. Nowadays, players are given curtain calls for long foul balls. It wasn’t always like this. A player had to do something special, something magical, something Reggie Jackson-like. It’s even rare to see guy chewing a massive glob of something. Instead, most ball players have personalized cleats and gloves. Yeah, the game has changed.
I know kids these days have heroes. They need them, just as I did when I was a kid. For the sake of the game, though, today’s ball players need to just shut up and play ball.