From beginning to end, Valenzuela's L.A. story was like no other

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There are things you only see once in a lifetime and, instinctively, you know it right away. That's what it was like for one magical month in 1981, when Fernando Valenzuela -- this roly-poly kid from the place no one could pronounce -- held the whole baseball world in his left hand.

His grip on Southern California would last a decade, finally loosening on Thursday when the Los Angeles Dodgers waived him for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release.

I was there at the beginning and, coincidentally enough, I was there at the end. I was covering the Dodgers when an injury forced Jerry Reuss to turn his 1981 Opening Day start against the Houston Astros over to a funny-looking, 20-year-old rookie from Etchohuaquila (don't even try), Mexico. I also was there Wednesday, when the Baltimore Orioles hit him so hard that he woke up on the waiver list.

For 10 years, Valenzuela romanced a city that long had been hungry for a Hispanic sports hero of such magnitude, but his appeal was not limited to the barrios of East L.A. Fernandomania was a cross-cultural phenomenon, especially during that one month in 1981 when everyone -- from the box seats to the bleachers and beyond -- felt the magic.

Valenzuela defeated the Astros, 2-0, on Opening Day and went on to win eight straight games, five by shutout. He also delivered a couple of game-winning hits along the way. Dodger Stadium swelled to standing room every time he took the mound. The evenings were electric, and if that sounds like a cliche, then you weren't within 50 miles of the place on any of them.

But my favorite Fernando story happened the night his amazing winning streak finally came to an end, in a 4-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies at Veterans Stadium. Phillies manager Dallas Green delighted afterward in telling how his club had scouted Valenzuela and found a weakness -- lay off the screwball and it will break out of the strike zone.

Sure enough, the Phillies had Fernando wired that night. They got three hits off him in seven innings.

That was the year of baseball's two-month midseason strike, so who knows what kind of year Valenzuela would have had if he had pitched a full season? He went 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA and eight shutouts. He won the Cy Young Award and Rookie of the Year. The Dodgers won the World Series.

He went on to average 17 victories a year until his arm started to go in 1987. His record from 1987-90 was 42-48, and he had not been pitching well this spring. The Orioles scored eight runs off him in 3 1/3 innings Wednesday, and the deadline for saving a couple of million dollars on his contract arrived Thursday. The Dodgers had five more effective starters and one of the biggest payrolls in baseball. From a business standpoint, it wasn't that tough a decision.

From a public-relations standpoint, however, it will not sit well in Los Angeles, especially if Valenzuela finds a way to recapture his lost glory in San Diego or New York or wherever. Stranger things have happened, like that day in 1981 when . . .

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Orioles first baseman Glenn Davis isn't ready to count Valenzuela out, even if it is obvious that he is not the same pitcher he was five years ago.

"He doesn't have the velocity he used to have," said Davis, after facing Valenzuela Wednesday, "and he didn't have his control. If he doesn't have his control, he's going to get beat around.

"He doesn't overpower anybody like he used to. The last year or two, he lost a foot or two off his fastball. But he's a smart pitcher. He knows how to pitch. I wouldn't count him out. I've seen other springs when he got hit hard. He's a competitor. He'll find a way to beat you."

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If Valenzuela is not claimed on waivers by Tuesday's deadline, there figure to be a lot of teams interested in signing him as a free agent. Unlike Bo Jackson, who scared teams away with his woeful medical outlook, Valenzuela has proven he's healthy enough to perform. He won 13 games last year, as many as the vTC winningest pitcher on the Orioles' staff (Dave Johnson).

Still, it seems unlikely that anyone will place a waiver claim and assume his giant salary, even if he is one of the few players in

baseball with proven drawing power.

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Figure this out. The Texas Rangers released outfielder Pete Incaviglia and brought veteran designated hitter Brian Downing into camp, which proves only that the Orioles aren't the only team in baseball with one eye on the scoreboard and the other on the bottom line.

Downing, largely unpursued as a free agent, will play for cheap. Incaviglia stood to make some serious money. The Rangers are on a cost-cutting binge. But at least there is some sentimental value. Downing has been reunited with former teammate Nolan Ryan 12 years after the two of them helped lead the California Angels to their first division title.

* New York Yankees manager Stump Merrill plans to use Don Mattingly as his No. 2 hitter this year as part of his plan to alternate left- and right-handed hitting evenly throughout the lineup. Right-handed Steve Sax will lead off and right-handed Roberto Kelly will hit third, with left-handed Kevin Maas in the cleanup spot and right-handed Hensley Meulens hitting fifth. Why is he doing this? Perhaps he's hoping that some unsuspecting opposing manager will use up all his pitchers by the third inning.

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The Houston Astros are excited about rookie Luis Gonzalez, who entered Thursday's game batting .400 (14-for-35) with four home runs and 13 RBI. Gonzalez is pretty excited, too. When manager Art Howe gave the club the day off Monday, the young left fielder showed up to work out, anyway.

"I'm not a guy who has really been a headliner," Gonzalez explained. "I've had to work hard to get where I am. I have to be at the ballpark. I want to be one of the top guys. I want to be like Will Clark."

Howe was impressed with Gonzalez' dedication, but he made him take the day off, anyway.

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Conspicuous consumption dept.: The lengthy California drought convinced the city of Poway to conduct a survey to determine which residents were using the most water. The winner was San Diego Padres shortstop Garry Templeton, who owns a four-acre lot with 100 trees and a pond. His average daily water usage was 12,579 gallons -- 4,000 gallons per day more than the next-highest resident and twice as much as the local car wash. Templeton will have to cut down. San Diego County is imposing penalties on residents who don't cut their water usage by 33 percent.

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In a Texas Rangers intrasquad game a couple of weeks ago, Ryan was pitching with an infield made up of manager Bobby Valentine at third base, first-base coach Toby Harrah at shortstop, dugout coach Davey Lopes at second and third base coach Dave Oliver at first. Only Lopes is older than Ryan, 44.

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Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda sparked controversy when he chose Tim Belcher to be his Opening Day starter. The seemingly obvious choice was Ramon Martinez, who was 20-6 last year and led the National League with 12 complete games. Lasorda cited Belcher's strong spring performance, but there was suspicion that Martinez is being punished for his contract holdout at the beginning of spring training.

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The Detroit Tigers are a little short on right-handed hitting depth, manager Sparky Anderson is campaigning openly for a trade.

"I'm so open to a trade it's unbelieveable," he said. "I've been through the roster books so many times the last few weeks, I'd trade with any soul whenever they want to trade."

Unfortunately, the problem for the Tigers is not a matter of when, but who. The club has several front-line players who would attract the interest of other teams, but Detroit is not likely to get much for the players Anderson would like to trade. The market for Mark Salas and Dave Bergman is not very strong at the moment.

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It happens every spring: Anderson has done it again. He has chosen another unproven young Tiger and burdened him with amazing and unrealistic expectations. To hear him tell it, rookie right-hander Rusty Meacham will be baseball's next super stopper.

"He's one of those guys who could be an unbelieveable short man," Anderson said. "He doesn't walk anyone. He's like [Oakland reliever Dennis] Eckersley. Eckersley doesn't walk anyone. Eckersley can't do anything this guy can't do, except Eckersley throws a little harder."

D8 And who wants a closer to throw hard, anyway, right?

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Neion Deion update: The Atlanta Braves almost certainly will take the irrepressible Deion Sanders north with them, now that Oddibe McDowell has been released and Lonnie Smith will be out at least the first two weeks of the season recovering from knee surgery. But the club may have to renegotiate Sanders' $150,000 minor-league salary, even though the Braves gave him a $500,000 bonus to sign. Normally, a player of such limited service time would have little leverage as far as his major-league salary is concerned, but Sanders is not your average minor-league prospect. His rich contract with the football Atlanta Falcons puts him in a position to walk if the Braves don't give him the money he wants.

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