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Fernando Valenzuela, Tommy Lasorda

The Los Angeles Dodgers are one of the most storied franchises in all of sports, and chief among the hallmarks is an unparalleled pitching dominance. Dodger blue and white brings to mind brilliance on the mound and the Cy Young Awards that followed. In Brothers in Arms: Koufax, Kershaw, and the Dodgers' Extraordinary Pitching Tradition, acclaimed Dodgers writer Jon Weisman explores the organization's rich pitching history, from Koufax and Drysdale to Valenzuela and Hershiser, to the sublime Clayton Kershaw. 

In the first two weeks of the 1981 season, Fernando Valenzuela had thrown 36 innings and struck out 36, while allowing only one run. By this time, the media frenzy had begun, with pregame sessions becoming press conferences. "This is where we get set to say good-bye to Valenzuela's childhood," wrote Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times. A day later, on April 27, the headline on Scott Ostler's column was one word, appearing in print for the first time: Fernandomania.

Brothers In Arms By Jon Weisman

"I was excited," Valenzuela recalls. "It was fine -- hard, at the same time. On the field, I was fine. Off the field, after the games -- sometimes people or the media didn't understand -- they wanted the interview right away, and I had to work, I had to be with the team. In that time, that was the hard part, but when I went on the field, that was exciting, because I knew what I had to do. I had a lot of confidence in my stuff."

"The Mexican people in Los Angeles were clamoring for an idol," Jaime Jarrin, the team's Spanish-language broadcaster, says. "When he started pitching in 1981, not only Mexicans, not only Latinos, but the Anglos also took notice of this kid, a little bit chubby, long hair, who couldn't speak any English. The American people fell in love with him. Everybody."

Rather than deploy a teammate or coach like Manny Mota to translate, vice president of public relations Fred Claire asked Jarrin to do so. On road trips, Jarrin and Valenzuela began flying to the next city a day ahead of the team in preparation for the next media onslaught, and when Valenzuela pitched, Jarrin left the broadcast booth in the eighth inning to be ready for the postgame Q&A from dumbstruck reporters.

"He was always very reserved," said Jarrin, who at the outset of his third decade with the Dodgers became a mini-national celebrity in the process. "In 1980, the writers didn't pay much attention to him because he was just a member of the bullpen. Then '81 started, and everything became a madhouse there. But he was always a very reserved person, very private person. Many people wondered if he knew exactly where he was and what was happening around him -- and he knew exactly. Extremely sharp guy, very intelligent."

With his teammates, Valenzuela was generally quiet, but his sense of humor snuck up and delighted them.

Fernando Valenzuela

"Fernando liked to play around," Reuss says. "Liked to play jokes too. Did anybody tell you about his lasso? He made a lasso out of clothesline, maybe he had a couple of different ones. And when somebody wasn't looking -- they'd put their foot up or cross their legs and sit comfortably on the bench, in a conversation or watching the game -- he'd get his lasso out and just like a cowboy, he'd spin it over his head and catch somebody's foot and then yank it off their knee."

The night the Fernandomania headline appeared, Valenzuela pitched his fourth shutout of the month, 5–0 over San Francisco -- while going 3-for-4 to raise his batting average to .438. His career ERA at that moment was 0.14.

"We had no idea that he would rise as fast as he did," Hooton says, "but it was fun to watch. He handled it amazingly well. Here's a kid that was 20 years old, and he's got to do press conferences before every game he pitches. He's got a whole half a world watching everything he does. And for a 20-year-old kid to handle things the way he handled, it was pretty remarkable -- and then still go out and pitch the way he pitched."

"It was a little bit like when you throw a rock into water and you see it splash," says Reuss. "Fernando was the splash. I was one of the ripples on the wave. I was one of the ones close up, so I saw it happen right there in front of me."

In his sixth start of the season and first start of May, Valenzuela gave up his second run and his first lead of the season when Montreal's Chris Speier tied the game at 1–1 in the bottom of the eighth with an RBI single. Valenzuela finished the ninth inning, then came away a winner when Los Angeles scored five times in the top of the 10th. In his next start, Valenzuela returned to his familiar ways, making a 1–0 lead stand up in New York for his fifth shutout, with 11 strikeouts. He then improved to 8–0 on the season when, after Speier and Andre Dawson hit the first home runs ever off him, sending the game into the bottom of the ninth tied 2–2, Guerrero hit a walkoff blast to win it.

Fernando Valenzuela 1981 Card

It's tempting to believe that Valenzuela had arrived in the big leagues fully formed, but he continued to be a student.

"Fernando was very coachable," Scioscia says. "And I think that he was trying to absorb knowledge and have an understanding of just the path he needed to be as good as he could be. Ron Perranoski had a positive influence on him. But everything from game plans to how to work in between starts, Fernando absorbed information like a sponge."

The scope of Valenzuela's impact could be seen not only at Dodger Stadium but throughout the community -- on May 17, thousands attended a Dodger clinic with Valenzuela in East Los Angeles -- and indeed, across the country.

"I'm half Mexican American," says the historian Eric Enders, an El Paso native, "and the community I grew up in is 80 percent Mexican American, and everybody in town was so excited about Fernando. The first memories I have of him was that everybody wanted to talk about him, not only Dodger fans, not only baseball fans even. I remember at all our family gatherings, my tío [uncle] Manuel, who didn't care about baseball one bit, he would always ask me, 'How's Fernando doing? How's Fernando doing?' And we'd talk about that. It just seemed to really galvanize this community, even a community that has nothing to do with Los Angeles, that's 900 miles away. People were just really proud of him."

-- Excerpted by permission from Brothers in Arms: Koufax, Kershaw, and the Dodgers' Extraordinary Pitching Tradition by Jon Weisman. Copyright (c) 2018. Published by Triumph Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes. Follow Jon Weisman on Twitter @jonweisman.