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A chubby 19-year-old from a remote village in Mexico’s Sonora Desert, Fernando Valenzuela couldn’t speak a word of English but became the most unlikely superstar in the history of baseball. This is his story. BT Sport 1, Wed, Feb 13th 10am.
Baseball is the national sport of America and the abiding image of the archetypal baseball player, or ‘The Natural’ as he is known to the game’s folklorists, looks nothing like Fernando Valenzuela. Writing in Sport Illustrated back in the early 1980s, renowned journalist and author Steve Wulf described this imaginary being as “a blue-eyed boy who teethed on a 36-ounce Louisville Slugger. He should run like the wind and throw boysenberries through brick. He should come from California”.
That ought to have ruled Valenzuela out of the running with exactly zero boxes ticked (except, perhaps, for the one about throwing boysenberries through brick). However, for a few short years in the early to mid-1980s he took the world of baseball by storm. He made the All-Star line-up six years running from 1981-86 which helped to cement his reputation as one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the game. Nicknamed ‘El Toro’, he was a hero not just to Los Angeles Dodgers fans but to the entire Hispanic community looking to grab their slice of the American Dream.
Valenzuela was born in Etchohuaquila, a small town in the state of Sonora, Mexico. He was the youngest of 12 children and, although he showed an aptitude for baseball from a very early age, he never dreamed he would ever make a living from the sport yet alone become a major star. He signed his first professional deal at the age of 16 in the Mexican Central League and quickly came to the attention of the Dodgers who bought out his contract in July 1979 for $120,000. It was the beginning of a remarkable career that would earn him legendary status within the game.
Directed by Mexican-born and Los Angeles-raised director Cruz Angeles, Fernando Nation is about more than just the trajectory of a baseball star – it also tells the story of the residents of Chavez Ravine, a mostly-Hispanic neighbourhood of Los Angeles which was bulldozed to make way for a new stadium to house the Dodgers following their relocation from Brooklyn.
Valenzuela’s arrival helped to heal wounds that had been festering for almost two decades. The Los Angeles Hispanic community had long boycotted Dodgers games, but this less-than-statuesque pitcher with his signature look to the skies and a screwball from hell became their standard bearer as a wave of ‘Fernandomania’ took hold. Remarkably, almost four decades on, it has never really gone away.
Fernando Nation reveals the depth of the hurt felt by the residents of Chavez Ravine as they were evicted from their homes. We see images of dark-skinned people being beaten by law enforcement officers and hear from those who were involved in the decade-long struggle. Much as they still are now, they were treated like second-class citizens by the powers that be, fine for cleaning swimming pools and keeping house but not really ‘citizens’ in the true sense of the word.
Valenzuela challenged all that and showed that you didn’t have to be born on US soil to earn your place at the top table. That is why he was and still is a hero to millions. His is a tale that echoes down through the years to modern times.
“One of my father's favourite phrases is ‘ponle ganas’ (‘give it your best’),” director Angeles explains. “Although I heard this all the time throughout my childhood, one of the most memorable occasions was when he proudly boasted about a fellow countryman, Fernando Valenzuela, who at only 19 was becoming a national sensation. My father would use Fernando as an example of what could be achieved. If Fernando, who came from such humble beginnings, could do it, then I could accomplish anything in this country.
“Like my father and I, many of us of Mexican descent lived vicariously through Fernando's success. When he won, we won. He was our Sandy Koufax, our Joe DiMaggio and in a way our Jackie Robinson because he gave us a sense of belonging and permission to participate as fans in the most American of pastimes - baseball.”
Despite his success on the mound and cult status among fans, it was by no means a smooth ride for Valenzuela and he constantly had to battle to get the rewards that his talents deserved. This included plenty of management opposition and even some name-calling from fans when he went looking for an improved contract. As Valenzuela himself said at the time: "We have been treated as children asking for favours. I am only 21 years old, but I am not a boy. I am a man and I have the same need to be considered with dignity and respect as does every other man."
Even as he is breaking records, this inherent racism is never far from the surface. On the eve of a possible baseball strike, US chat show host Johnny Carson quips: "The bad news is there may be a baseball strike tomorrow. The good news is, Reggie Jackson just offered Fernando Valenzuela a job as a gardener." Later at a White House luncheon, he is referred to by a television reporter as “Mexico's most documented migrant”. “He is now this country's most sought after guest worker," the reporter says without a hint of irony.
But that was the 1980s – it’s good to know that the world has changed so much since then……..
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