If You Have A Sombrero, You’re Probably A Dodger Fan

No, that’s NOT a racist statement.  That’s an observation, an acknowledgment, and an appreciation, much like that which was bestowed last night on Dodger legend Fernando Valenzuela, who had his #34 become the 12th uniform number (as well as a microphone) to be retired. .  As Leslie Bernstein of LA.ist recounted:

In the early 1980s, Los Angeles was gripped by “Fernandomania”: fans, many of them Latino, packed Dodger Stadium to see a lefthander from Mexico with a confounding screwball. 

But there’s much more to Valenzuela’s Dodger legacy than his pitching, said Jaime Jarrín. The Dodgers’ longtime Spanish-language sportscaster, now retired, befriended Valenzuela back when he joined the team, acting as his translator — and later, as Valenzuela’s partner in the broadcast booth.

“He became right away a hero for Latinos following baseball,” Jarrín told LAist. “The most important thing is that he created so many new baseball followers.…people from Mexico, from Central America, from South America that didn’t care at all about baseball.”

When Valenzuela came along, Latino sports fans in L.A. at the time were more interested in soccer and boxing, Jarrín said. But when the young man Jarrin describes as “a 19-year-old kid, a little chubby, with Indian features and long hair,” took the pitcher’s mound, Mexican Americans and Latinos in L.A. and elsewhere noticed.

“I think he made them feel proud of being Latinos here in this country,” Jarrín said. “That is what he told me many times, ‘I am very, very proud of being Mexican, and of being Mexican and being here in the United States, here in the major leagues.’ So really, he became an idol here.”

Being the son of a passionate Brooklyn Dodger fan, I was exposed to quite a bit of hero worship of Dodgers growing up, and I noticed that while there were plenty of decent Latino players on the Dodgers, arguably the most diverse franchise in baseball, going all the way back to Brooklyn hero Sandy Amoros and his game-saving catch in Game 7 of the ’55 Series, there wasn’t a personality or performance as outsized nor as mercurial as the one the guy my maladrop-oriented dad called “Val-en-zoo-way-lah” made when he came upon the scene.

Most people credit Fernandomania catching on during the first weeks of the 1981 season, as Bernstein continued:

He rose quickly to stardom the following year, starting out the 1981 season with a series of shut-out wins, appearing in the All-Star game, and eventually leading the Dodgers to their World Series victory over the New York Yankees that year.    

But Valenzuela actually first appeared in LA when he made several relief appearances during the waning days of the 1980 season, going 2-0 and keeping the Dodgers in the Western Division race through the final weekend, sweeping three home games from the first-place Houston Astros to force a one-game playoff with the same team on a Monday afternoon.  My dad, having endured some disappointing three-game playoff losses to the Giants (though he seemed to forget the one they won against Milwaukee in 1959, but I guess with a screaming, overweight infant in the house he may have been distracted), was actually nervous about the finality of the first Dodger playoff in the divisional era, which was cited by MLB as the reason this one would be one game (though, of course, any Yankee or Red Sox fan already knew that),  He loudly campaigned for the Dodgers to start the rookie because they likely hadn’t had much competitive intelligence on him and clearly weren’t hitting him over the weekend.  Instead, AL castoff Dave Goltz got the nod, he got bombed, Houston escaped with the division, and to his dying day the name Goltz was forever associated by him with heartbreak and failure.

Most Dodger fans would consider his crowning moment in an LA uniform to be the no-hitter he threw during an otherwise disappointing 1990 season against St. Louis on a stifling June night, which AJ Martinez of EN FUEGO recalled:

He threw 119 pitches. Valenzuela also had seven strikeouts and three walks. Upon the final out being recorded, Vin Scully dropped one of his best calls. “If you have a sombrero, throw it to the sky!” Vin Scully has a lot of great calls in his GOAT career, but that one surely ranks among one of the best.

And if you’ve forgotten just how great both he and Scully were, and how the melding of the fan bases of The Dodgers and Los Doyers could be seamlessly achieved, please enjoy this recounting of those wonderfully tense and exciting moments:

But for my dad, and frankly for myself, the game we saw him pitch live in early September 1985 against a pretty good young phenom, Dwight Gooden, while both the Mets and Dodgers were trying to win their division (no wild card then).  With a full house including myself, both of my parents and about a dozen other fans, we sat high in the top deck riveted to a pair of masterful performances that the LOS ANGELES TIMES’ wonderful Gordon Edes described for posterity:

Darryl Strawberry, who recently hit his 20th home run the same day his good friend, Dwight Gooden, became the youngest pitcher in history to win 20 games, sliced a two-run, ground-rule double off Dodger reliever Tom Niedenfuer in the 13th inning Friday night o give the New York Mets a 2-0 win over the Dodgers before a crowd of 51,868 at Dodger Stadium.

It was the largest crowd to see a game here since Steve Garvey first returned as a San Diego Padre.

Strawberry’s hit came too late to win a 21st game for Gooden, who departed after a five-hitter through nine innings in which he struck out 10 Dodgers and did not walk a batter. “Just his normal self,” said Steve Sax, one of the few Dodgers not to go down on strikes against Gooden.  Strawberry’s hit also came too late to pin a defeat on Fernando Valenzuela, who labored longer than he ever has as a Dodger–11 innings, during which he gave up six hits but also came away with a no-decision in the rubber match of his mano a mano duel with Gooden.

I’ve yet to see a no-hitter live, nor have I seen many games of late with even one other person.  But that night, heart-stopping tension with outstanding performances and enough passionate people to force my complaining parents to stay way past their bedtimes, was arguably the best night I’ve spent at any regular season game in my lifetime.  All the more poignant because it was the night before my parents were to fly back to New York, and, naturally, we all overslept and I missed getting them on their flight.  Mom didn’t quite understand how easy it was to book another flight, particularly in those days.  Only after a lot of tears and a heavy deli lunch did she calm down and realize how lucky she was to have witnessed such a great game.   When our cousin observed that her face bore a passing resemblance to Fernando’s, all was eventually forgiven.

It was one the last times I recall her and my dad enjoying themselves in someone else’s company.  Around the time Fernando left the Dodgers the following year, Mom left this mortal coil.

So maybe my memories and appreciation for Valenzuela have as much to do with my roots as it does with the roots he shares with the Angelos who still revere him, and who listen to him nightly as one of the Dodgers’ Spanish lanuguage broadcasters.  One of us, only unhittable.

I don’t own a sombrero these days.  But I might throw an empty Entenmann’s box skyward instead, in tribute not only to Fernando but the fan he created that night who might just reach down and grab it out of the air





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