VERO BEACH, Fla. -- The dissolution of Fernandomania reached its somber conclusion yesterday when Los Angeles Dodgers officials decided they had seen their once-great pitcher struggle for the last time.
In a tiny, windowless office here in Dodgertown, Fernando Valenzuela, at 30, was told that he no longer was a Dodger. Intending to give him his unconditional release, the Dodgers put him on waivers.
"They call me into the office and say, 'This is very hard for us,' " Valenzuela said. "I said, 'What is so hard? Just say it!' And so they said it.
"I said, 'OK, thanks.' And that is all I say.' "
"I have said that the end of this spring, I wanted to leave with the best five starting pitchers," manager Tom Lasorda said. "We have five starters, and Fernando is not one of them."
Valenzuela spoke softly, his eyes often wandering into space.
"Baseball is fun for me," he said. "But today, it is not fun."
Said Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley: "All careers must end."
Valenzuela does not agree that this is the end of his and hopes to prove the Dodgers wrong after he clears waivers Tuesday.
If unclaimed, he will become a free agent and can deal with any team. In that case, the Dodgers would owe him $630,494.
"I still feel good, I still feel I can pitch," Valenzuela said. "I hope I can get with a new team, start a new life."
In conversations earlier this spring, Valenzuela said he wanted to stay in the National League, preferably in the NL West. Teams with interest will probably include San Francisco and the Houston Astros, with the Giants probably being Valenzuela's top choice.
TH "We will discuss it internally," said Ralph Nelson, Giants assistant
Valenzuela said he would retire only if nobody has called him by the first month of the season.
"I want to start with a team in the beginning," said Valenzuela, who plans to play golf in the meantime. "If they call me in June or July, I will say, 'Sorry, I'm on the back nine.' "
The Dodgers' decision was not made quickly. They had been discussing this since last winter, when some officials did not want to re-sign Valenzuela as a free agent even though last season he threw a no-hitter and his 13 victories were more than the totals posted by all but two National League left-handers.
Many felt he cost the club the pennant last season by going 1-3 with an 8.40 ERA in his final six starts. This led to a 4.59 ERA, the worst of any NL regular.
And many felt his shoulder had never recovered from the injury he suffered in 1988.
Valenzuela struggled in his first start this spring, but then allowed just two hits in five innings in an emotional victory March 17 over the Milwaukee Brewers in Monterrey, Mexico. It was his first pitching appearance in his native country in 10 years.
On that same day, Orel Hershiser decided that because of his injured shoulder, he could not start the season in the rotation. That appeared to help Valenzuela's chances.
But then he struggled in his next start, giving up four runs -- three earned -- and eight hits in 4 2/3 innings against the Philadelphia Phillies. That led to what Lasorda admitted was the last straw.
On Wednesday afternoon, Valenzuela gave up eight runs in 3 1/3 innings against the Baltimore Orioles. After spending a restless night, Dodgers officials met early yesterday morning and decided they could not endure that sort of performance during the regular season.
Instead of allowing Valenzuela to make one more spring start Monday, as scheduled, they decided to release him with a spring record of 1-2 and a 7.88 ERA.
There is one group of people, though, with no doubt that Valenzuela can still pitch. Those are the Dodgers players, who lost another clubhouse favorite just days after the release of Mickey Hatcher.
"Just like Hatcher, it's one of those things that's tough to swallow. . . . It's just very surprising," said catcher Mike Scioscia, the only Dodger who has played with Valenzuela throughout his Dodger career. "There is no doubt, he can still pitch and get guys out. I still have a lot of confidence in the guy."
Critics have long speculated that Valenzuela's demise was hastened by the many innings he pitched every season -- a total of 2,348 2/3 innings in 10 full major-league seasons.
The Dodgers answered those critics yesterday by saying that Valenzuela never had tremendous control, meaning his "normal" games involved more pitches than normal. They also said it was HTC difficult to judge his arm strength because he never wanted to leave a game.
Some believe that the real reason for the end of Valenzuela's Dodgers career, however, occurred in the last couple of years. They said it was not a problem of overuse, but of adaptation.
"Management never realized that since his shoulder problems, Fernando was not the same pitcher," one veteran said. "They would leave him in blowout games in the seventh and eighth innings, and then five days later he would be worthless. They did not protect him."