Film gives Valenzuela's story a new context
'Fernando Nation' set to debut on ESPN Deportes on Sunday
LOS ANGELES -- Even before he met with ESPN, Cruz Angeles had plans to tell Fernando Valenzuela's story differently, or at the least, contextualize it differently.
Most know that Valenzuela's 1981 rookie season was as extraordinary and phenomenal as perhaps any in the history of the game. Most know, too, that Valenzuela, now a Dodgers Spanish-radio broadcaster, became a national hero here and in his native Mexico almost instantly. "Fernandomania," they called it.
The intense climate Fernando's debut came on the heels of, though, is often a forgotten story. Angeles, a Mexican-born and Los Angeles-based film director, has told it in a film titled, "Fernando Nation," which debuts on ESPN Deportes at 6 p.m. PST on Oct. 24 and on ESPN at 5 p.m. PST on Oct. 26.
A part of ESPN's acclaimed "30 for 30" documentary series, the film's official premiere was held on Thursday night in the Stadium Club at Dodger Stadium, with a lit Dodger field the backdrop as Valenzuela himself watched the final version of the film for the first time.
"You can't tell the story of Fernandomania without talking about Chavez Ravine," Angeles said in a question-and-answer after the 50-minute screening. "Every time we see a Fernandomania film, it's the same thing. It's already been made ... I didn't really want to make that version. I wanted to make a version about a community and a sports figure."
Chavez Ravine, the site of Dodger Stadium, was once home to a primarily Mexican-American community. Shortly after World War II, a federal housing act offered funding for a public housing project, and the city of Los Angeles targeted Chavez Ravine as the site.
Frank Wilkinson, though, an assistant director of the housing project, became embroiled in the McCarthy-era paranoia, and was accused of communist ties. The housing project fell apart, and in its place came the idea for a baseball stadium -- Dodger Stadium.
Still an unresolved matter, though, were those residents of Chavez Ravine who had not accepted offers to vacate their homes. Eminent domain was invoked and residents were forcibly removed from their homes -- footage of which Angeles uses in the film.
The Mexican-American community didn't forget what happened, and Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers' owner, could tell as much from the turnstile receipts.
"If they could find just one gem from Mexico, they could tap into that entire market," team historian Mark Langill said in the film.
In 1979, the Dodgers and scout Mike Brito signed Valenzuela away from a pro ball team in Mexico, and two years later, he found himself the team's Opening Day pitcher at Dodger Stadium. A pudgy unknown from a small Mexican town, Valenzuela threw a shutout and, incredibly, won his first eight Major League starts. Valenzuela ignited a national craze and invigorated a fan base the Dodgers hadn't captivated before.
"Fernando transcended everything," Angeles said. "It wasn't just race and class."
The context of Valenzuela's emergence established, Angeles spent the rest of the film chronicling Valenzuela's 17-year career as effectively as he can in a short 50-minute format. Many stories, Angeles said, had to be left out.
Filming of "Fernando Nation" was done during this past season, when a camera crew following Valenzuela around Dodger Stadium, seemingly everywhere -- even to the golf course when the Dodgers held a charity outing. For Valenzuela, who said he liked the film, it achieved what he had hoped -- to remember that his emergence wasn't truly overnight, even if that's the common perception.
"I [wanted it] to show that it was very hard for me," Valenzuela said. "I worked many years in Mexico, traveled by bus many hours. That's the idea, that it wasn't easy, it wasn't easy for me. When I was with the Dodgers, I played one year in the Minor Leagues, I was lucky. But I played before. I hope everyone liked it, because I liked it."
Evan Drellich is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.