SARASOTA, Fla. -- It has been almost 12 years since a pudgy, 20-year-old left-hander named Fernando Valenzuela became an instant international sensation, but the memory remains fresh. Perhaps that is why he has returned after a two-year hiatus to stage an improbable comeback attempt with the Orioles.
Valenzuela, whose emergence in 1981 was such a phenomenon that it was given its own name ("Fernandomania"), arrived at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport late yesterday hoping to rekindle a major-league career that appeared to end when he was released by the Los Angeles Dodgers and California Angels in 1991.
He will work out for the first time at Twin Lakes Park today, hoping there is enough life left in his arm to win the fifth spot in the Orioles starting rotation. The next six weeks will tell, but Valenzuela stopped long enough at the airport last night to tell why he has decided to try returning to the major leagues.
"I like the game, and I like to pitch," he said. "My arm feels fine. That's the reason I still want to play. I'd just like to thank the Orioles for giving me a chance to resume my career."
It isn't as simple as that. Valenzuela spent a full year pitching in Mexico before he was confident that he could still be effective in the majors. He made 22 starts for Jalisco of the Mexican League last summer and was not overly impressive, but came back to pitch very well for Navojoa this winter. His solid performance in the Caribbean Series finally persuaded him to give the major leagues another try.
"I had some problems with my control in the Mexican League," Valenzuela said. "I've never had good enough velocity to be able to throw the ball over the middle of the plate. During the winter, I felt a lot better, and, during the Caribbean Series, I got to see some great teams from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
"There were a lot of players on those teams who had major-league experience. Pitching against those hitters was a good chance to see if I can still pitch in the big leagues."
It was also a good chance to be seen. Orioles scout Fred Uhlman Sr. was in Mexico for the Caribbean Series, and he sent back a positive report on Valenzuela. Orioles assistant general manager Frank Robinson, who was managing the San Francisco Giants when Valenzuela took the major leagues by storm in 1981, prodded club officials to keep an open mind. Then came agent Dick Moss, who did a selling job on GM Roland Hemond to get Valenzuela a non-roster invitation to camp.
The club didn't need a lot of convincing. The Orioles have made a habit of playing host to improbable comeback attempts over the past few years. Hall of Famer Jim Palmer came to camp in 1991 at the tender age of 45. Hemond also has given Bob Horner, Randy Bass and Mike Flanagan (twice) the opportunity to turn non-roster invitations into new life in the major leagues. Flanagan is the only one to make good on it.
"I just remember Fernando the way he was," Robinson said. "I was very impressed the first time I saw him. He was only 19 or 20 years old, but he already knew how to pitch. I liked the way he handled himself on the mound. Now, after seeing his name and seeing that he had pitched successfully in the Mexican League, I told Roland we ought to give him some thought. Maybe his arm has come back some. Maybe coming over to another league, he might have a chance to be successful."
Valenzuela signed a Rochester Red Wings contract, but he would not say yesterday whether he was willing to pitch in Triple-A if he does not make the club.
"I don't know right now," he said. "I'm looking forward to doing well and having a good spring training."
The Orioles are happy to have the added pitching depth, but they might have painted themselves into a corner by bringing Valenzuela to camp. He is a finesse pitcher who is not far removed from the winter league season, so he could be at a distinct advantage over the hitters when the exhibition season begins later this week. If so, it might be difficult to get an accurate read on his effectiveness.
"That's why we have managers and coaches who are able to make intelligent judgments on pitching performance," club president Larry Lucchino said. "I don't think they would be misled by a spring training aberration. The point is to generate competition and to look for pitching wherever we can find it."
Manager Johnny Oates said he is not concerned. He said he will make sure that he sees Valenzuela against top-flight competition before making any decision on the final makeup of the starting rotation.
"I don't know if that's a problem," Oates said. "I'll try to pitch him in as many 'A' games as possible, so we can see how the hitters react to him. I'm just looking forward to seeing him. I've heard a lot of good things about him."
Valenzuela's 10-year career with the Dodgers included enough highlights to last him through a long retirement. He led the team to a world championship in his rookie year. He pitched in three National League Championship Series and five All-Star Games. He won 21 games in 1986. But he is best remembered for the phenomenal early-season run that spawned "Fernandomania" in 1981.
The only reason he was the Dodgers' Opening Day pitcher that year was because left-hander Jerry Reuss had to be scratched with a hamstring strain. Valenzuela pitched a shutout in the opener and went on to win his first eight decisions. He was such a sensation that Dodger Stadium was packed to standing room every time he pitched.
Valenzuela remembers that time fondly now, even though it had to be extremely hectic for a 20-year-old rookie who didn't speak English.
"It was really hard at the time to realize how big it was," said Valenzuela, who no longer requires an interpreter. "It went by too fast."
His whole career seemed to go by too fast. His effectiveness began to diminish after his 21-11 performance in 1986. He dropped to 14-14 the next season and was limited to 23 starts by arm problems in 1988. He remained in the Dodgers rotation for two more seasons, but was released in spring training 1991 after a 13-13 season in 1990.
The Angels signed Valenzuela early in 1991 and brought him up to make two appearances, but he gave up nine earned runs in 6 2/3 innings and was released for the second time in three months. Now, he is starting over.
"It is a tribute to him that he has gone back to the Mexican League to work his way back," said longtime adviser Tony DeMarco, who accompanied Valenzuela to Sarasota. "He wants to pitch in the major leagues because he knows he can and because he loves the sport very much."