ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Fernando Valenzuela was standing on the mound at Al Lang Stadium. A Toronto Blue Jay was standing on every base. There were no outs in the fifth inning. This was known in the trade as serious trouble.
Suddenly, the spring season was not the laconic unlimbering of legend. There was a palpable uneasiness in the little bank of bleachers, where the customers had stood and applauded Fernando's entrance an inning earlier. But now his comeback was about to suffer a Jim Palmer conclusion, sinking into the gulf two years to the day after Palmer's last pitch.
Sure, Orioles manager Johnny Oates had insisted that Valenzuela would not pitch his way on or off the roster last night, when the famous ex-Dodger threw for the first time in his bid to become the club's fifth starter. "He'll get 15 or 20 innings this spring," Oates said, "and we'll decide at the end of that. Not one game."
But let's get serious here. Mark Williamson had thrown three more hitless innings the night before, making it five in a row this spring. Williamson's conversion from the bullpen to the rotation is beginning to look like a go. He's healthy and hellish. That means, of course, that Fernando needs to be perfect, or very DTC nearly, to have any chance after two years away from the bigs.
He passed inspection in the first of his two innings last night. He gave up a leadoff single, admitting he was maybe as excited as he had been since the 1981 World Series, then struck out Derek Bell and got Joe Carter to hit into a double play. The hitters were chasing his infamous screwball. Beautiful.
The second inning quickly turned into a mess, though. A leadoff walk. A double cranked off the left-field wall. A hit batter. Then, with the bases full, three straight balls to the batter, Pat Borders. Yikes.
Fernando stood on the mound and sighed. He flipped the ball in his left hand a couple of times. Adjusted his cap. Looked into catcher Chris Hoiles for the sign. Went into his windup. And suddenly, magically, it was 1981 again. Al Lang wasn't just a little spring ballpark, but Dodger Stadium, jammed to the rim and wobbling from the thunder of Fernandomania.
He threw Borders a fastball for strike one. Then he teased, taking a couple of inches off a fastball. Borders missed, too early. Strike two.
But what now? Any mortal pitcher throws a fastball. Who has the guts to try anything else? What if the curve doesn't curve? What if the slider doesn't slide?
Fernando reared back and threw a screwball, baby. A twisting, dancing pearl.
A Hall of Fame pitch on a lazy weeknight in March.
Let's just say that 6,000 fans got real lucky.
The ball veered across the low, outside corner of the plate. Borders swung, realizing halfway through that he was cooked. He only missed by approximately a foot.
Is that a pitcher with a lot of money in the bank, or what?
Fernando was not out of trouble yet, of course. Up next was Domingo Cedeno, a minor-league infielder. Remember, the bases were still loaded.
Fernando threw a fastball. Cedeno knocked it on the ground toward second base, where Harold Reynolds grabbed it and threw to shortstop Manny Alexander covering second. Alexander briefly struggled pulling the ball out of his glove, then whipped the ball on to first for a double play.
The umpire at first threw up his right hand, into the moment. Two pitches, three outs. The crowd rose, offering up a September roar.
This couldn't really be spring training, could it?
Fernando pumped his arms, turned and headed briskly for the dugout, energized. The bench spilled up onto the top step and out onto the field. Reynolds and Alexander passed Fernando on the way in and high-fived the old pitcher.
Whether he winds up making the team is, of course, still very much in doubt. He knows it's a long shot, that he almost has to be perfect, that just getting into trouble was a debit.
"Next time I do better," he said afterward, an ice pack on his elbow and a smile on his round face.
Maybe he will, maybe he won't. His fastball traveled at 84 mph last night. That's Triple-A stuff. But velocity was never the issue with Fernando. The issue was wiles and guts and a mean little devil of a pitch.
The issue was bases loaded, no outs, full count . . .
. . . and a screwball. Across the outside corner.
"They tend to chase that pitch, huh?" someone said to catcher Chris Hoiles.
"Yes," he said, "they certainly do."