Fernando Valenzuela wasn’t the first Mexican born player to play in the majors (that was Mel Almada for the Red Sox in the 30s, which is ironic since the Sawx were the last team to break the color barrier in the 50s) but he is the greatest. A role model to many, Fernando burst onto the scene with the Dodgers in 1981, captivating Los Angeles and the rest of the country in a way that no other athlete likely ever has or ever will. Oh sure, we still have the occasional flare up of puppy dog love with an out-of-nowhere underdog like Jeremy Lin, but Linsanity was born in an era of 24/7 information and out of control merchandising, meaning it wasn’t as organic and pure as Fernando Fever was.
Fernando Nation is the name of The ESPN 30 for 30 series documentary that examines Valenzuela’s rise with the Dodgers and his effect on the Latino community, a community that had been wounded almost two decades prior during the construction of Dodgers Stadium in Chavez Ravine. The doc opens on the Dodgers’ grim history with Los Angeles area Mexican-America residents, detailing how imminent domain was used to eject people from their homes in the name of a shiny new baseball stadium. It’s an affecting story and relevant to these times (although isn’t injustice always relevant?) in light of the way that cities still bend over backwards to build palaces for their sports teams with little regard for the needs of their people, but while the history lesson is appreciated, it doesn’t easily tie to Fernando’s first time toeing the rubber at Dodgers Stadium. Sure, his presence sparked interest in the Dodgers from the Latino community, but it didn’t do nearly enough to make up for the sins of the past.
What Fernando did do though was dominate baseball for years before the work load slowed him down. A Cy Young winner, Rookie of the Year, and World Series hero in 1981, Fernando had become an expensive pedestrian talent by the start of the 1990 season. Fernando had one last moment in the sun though, throwing a no-hitter at the end of June that year, throwing his first pitch shortly after Dave Stewart had thrown a no-no in Toronto for the A’s. It was vintage Fernando and came with the added mythos of Valenzuela reportedly telling his teammates “You just saw a no-hitter on TV, now you will see one in person.”
Fernando Nation tells that story fantastically but it fails to adequately describe the fall that followed. Still in the twilight of his no-hitter, Valenzuela folded in September going 1-3 with an 8.40 ERA. By the end of Spring Training the following year, Valenzuela was having trouble getting into the 80s on the gun and he had earned his release from the Dodgers.
Fernando’s semi-triumphant return with the Padres in 1996 following years of bouncing between the Majors and Mexico, and his time playing Mexican Winter Ball in his 40s are also ignored and that stands as a missed opportunity. I give Fernando Nation 3 stars because it excels at telling the story of Fernando the myth while doing a less than stellar job of telling the story of Fernando the man — a pitcher who stubbornly and amazingly refused to let his love for the game burn out.