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06/16/11 12:30 PM ET

The legend of 'El Toro'

Thirty years ago, Fernandomania gripped Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES -- It has been 14 years since "El Toro" was put out to pasture, professionally, but the legend lives on in this sprawling, complex city. Nobody in Tinseltown ever felt more love in his time than Fernando Valenzuela, who somehow made strangers feel like family.

Thirty years later, Fernando is 50, and it still feels like a dream. The writer of this essay was there for every pitch in 1981, from February through October, with a two-month labor stalemate turning out the lights from June 12 to Aug. 11. As the years have passed, that season has taken on a surreal cast, thanks entirely to one manchild.

How was it possible? How could a round-faced, full-bodied kid from nowhere with a crazy delivery and a fastball that barely touched 90 mph do this? Even as a check of Baseball-Reference.com verifies every detail, the whole tale retains a tint of fable.

With a back story straight out of central casting and that unforgettable delivery -- eyes cast skyward at its apex, closing tight as the left arm came whipping through -- Fernando Valenzuela made magic at the age of 20. Pure, unfiltered magic.

When veteran Jerry Reuss pulled a calf muscle running in preparation for the start, Valenzuela was handed the ball on Opening Day, April 9. Manager Tom Lasorda told him to go get some outs. Armed with 17 2/3 innings of big league bullpen experience from the previous September, Fernando got 27 outs, almost nonchalantly shutting out the Astros on five hits. It was the beginning of an astonishing run of excellence.

"In 1981, I wasn't even in the plan," Valenzuela said about his last-minute Opening Day start against the Astros. "I believe I was scheduled to pitch the third game. Tommy came up to me and asked me in Spanish, 'Can you pitch Opening Day?' and I told him, 'That's what I was looking for.'

"I think that Opening Day in 1981 was one of the biggest games in my career, because we won that game, 2-0, a complete-game shutout. And I think a lot of good things happened because of that game, and it gave me an opportunity to stay in the rotation."

Valenzuela unleashed eight consecutive nine-inning efforts, winning each, five times on the road. He yielded four earned runs in those 72 innings, a 0.50 ERA. He produced 74 strikeouts against 19 walks.

As the momentum gathered in April, Valenzuela became front-page news -- above all the world's events -- in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the newspaper that employed me as its beat writer.

The work stoppage brought it all to a grinding, galling halt, alienating millions of fans that summer. After play resumed, an unusual postseason format had division winners of the first and second halves squaring off in October.

The Dodgers overcame best-of-five series deficits to dispatch Houston and then Montreal. Once again the dreaded Yankees, their conquerors in 1977 and '78, waited.

New York took the first two in the Bronx, but a sea of changes was on the horizon. With Valenzuela gutting out a pivotal Game 3 triumph in Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers suddenly felt invincible. Four consecutive victories lifted them to a World Series championship.

Valenzuela gave his team courage, finding ways to win with his guile as much as with his uncommon delivery and stuff. He seized elimination games against Houston and Montreal, allowing 11 earned runs in 40 2/3 postseason innings.

His 2-1 Game 5 conquest of the Expos in freezing Montreal, with one out of relief from Bobby Welch after Rick Monday's dramatic ninth-inning homer, decided the National League pennant.

Then came Fernando's crowning achievement: that Series-changing Game 3 decision. Dodger Stadium never was louder or more euphoric.

"In 1981, I wasn't even in the plan."
-- Fernando Valenzuela

Valenzuela wasn't at his best. He coughed up a three-run first-inning lead provided by Ron Cey's homer, surrendering a pair of runs in the second and third innings. Mike Scioscia pinch-hit for catcher Steve Yeager in the bottom of the third and jumped behind the plate. Fernando went all the way, hanging up six straight zeroes. The Yankees were 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.

A 5-4 victory changed everything. Taking Game 6 in Yankee Stadium, the Dodgers waved adios to the Bronx Bombers and all those demons from 1977 and '78.

"If Fernando hadn't done what he did in Montreal," said Reds manager Dusty Baker, the clubhouse unifier and slugging left fielder of those great Dodgers clubs, "we wouldn't have been playing the Yankees. But that performance in the World Series ... that has to be the one.

"He just wouldn't give in. Fernando wouldn't let us lose."

As the Dodgers celebrated their first World Series title in 16 years, Valenzuela was four days shy of his 21st birthday.

"There was just something about Fernando from Day 1," said Baker, a three-time NL Manager of the Year. "He knew he was good -- and he proved it. He was one tough dude."

There also was some screwball in him. Valenzuela loved playing the innocent prankster.

About a month into that 1981 season, the Herald Examiner ran a poll asking readers to choose a nickname for Valenzuela. The runaway winner was "El Toro." The messenger -- yours truly -- took some heat from a few offended teammates when the story appeared.

Sensing my discomfort, Fernando motioned me over to his locker. "No problem," he confided, in Spanish. "Don't worry about it. I don't care -- as long as you don't call me fat."

"He just wouldn't give in. Fernando wouldn't let us lose."
-- Former teammate Dusty Baker

As fit and funny and wonderfully unique as ever, Fernando remains visible in Dodger Stadium's Spanish broadcast both alongside Hall of Famer Jaime Jarrin.

The boyish prankster in him is still visible as he makes his way around the ballpark he brought to life 30 years ago with his talents and personality. He is the same guy who showed up late in the 1980 season, pitching brilliantly in relief, while making everyone smile with his little tricks.

Widespread was the view that Valenzuela was the best choice to start a winner-take-all playoff game against Houston. The Dodgers had tied the Astros for the NL West title by sweeping them in the season's final three games. Lasorda opted for veteran Dave Goltz. Houston prevailed.

Four months later, in Vero Beach, Fla., during Spring Training, the clubs brass asked me to help Valenzuela with his English. I knew enough Spanish to make him comfortable, and we spent several evenings strolling through Dodgertown. He was, trust me, no older than 20, as skeptics would later claim.

Fernando decided to end those impromptu English sessions, reasoning that he'd be better off with an interpreter, making sure he wasn't misunderstood. It turned out to be a wise move. Jarrin, handling the job with characteristic style, freed Valenzuela of what would have become an impossible media burden as Fernandomania exploded beyond Los Angeles' borders.

"At 20 years old," Scioscia said, "Fernando was put on such a pedestal. It takes a special guy to handle that, but they don't come any more special than Fernando. He kept his focus on playing baseball. He never got sidetracked by any of the fame or what came with it."

Scioscia, American League Manager of the Year twice in his 12 seasons with the Angels, caught all but 22 of Valenzuela's 233 innings, postseason included, in 1981. Fernando won the NL Rookie of the Year Award and the NL Cy Young Award, and he placed fifth in the NL Most Valuable Player Award balloting.

"As a catcher," Scioscia said, "you always take a lot of pride in your pitchers' performance. As he started to have his success, it gave me the confidence. 'Hey, I can play in the Major Leagues.'"

Across the next six years, with Scioscia, his primary receiver, Fernando would average an astounding 266 innings. One of the era's best, the six-time All-Star lasted 17 seasons, wearing five other Major League uniforms.

Yet nothing he would do ever could measure up in mythic dimensions to that 1981 season. In a more innocent, less cynical time, he'd come out of a tiny village in the desert of Navajoa, Sonora, Mexico, to spark a love affair with America's second-largest city -- and a nation of baseball fans still seething over two lost months.

Fernando, like the game he played, was simply irresistible.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.