The stream of reporters and well-wishers past Fernando Valenzuela's locker yesterday raised his status from shutout pitcher to foreign dignitary, or so it seemed to his manager.
"We had Fernando Valenzuela in here," joked Johnny Oates. "He's the president of Mexico. I mean with all the coverage he's been getting the last 24 hours, you'd think he was."
Considering the road Valenzuela has traveled to get to this point, Valenzuela's 24 hours of fame are well-deserved.
The left-hander shut out the Cleveland Indians on two hits over eight innings in a rain-shortened game Tuesday night that gave him his first win in three years.
"When I came in from the trainer's room, and they told me it was all over, that really made me happy," said Valenzuela. "It was the first win for me and that meant a lot because it gave me more confidence, plus we needed that win, not only for myself but for the team."
The 7-0 win was the 30th shutout of Valenzuela's career, but may have been his most memorable.
Valenzuela said: "I was looking for that for a long time. That was the reason I continued to pitch, to come back, to get to this moment. I think I've been working hard to be back for these
kinds of moments."
Moments like Tuesday's must have seemed a million miles away in the two years Valenzuela spent out of the majors, after being released by the Los Angeles Dodgers and the California Angels, both in 1991.
Even this season, after winning a spot as the fifth starter in the Orioles rotation, Valenzuela's rocky beginning, with an ERA above 11.00, must have made Tuesday's 120-pitch gem seem like a fantasy.
But Valenzuela has evolved into the Orioles' second-best starter, behind Mike Mussina. During his four starts, Valenzuela's ERA is a miserly 2.01, lowering his season's mark to 3.72.
But until Tuesday night, the Orioles hadn't been scoring runs for him, crossing the plate just nine times in his first five starts, leaving him with a loss and two no-decisions in his three previous outings.
The Orioles are trying to quiet comparisons of Valenzuela's most recent exploits to the days of "Fernandomania," when he held Los Angeles captive, bursting onto the scene in 1981 by winning both the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards.
First-base coach Davey Lopes, a teammate of Valenzuela's in Los Angeles, said: "I really don't like to compare Fernando to what he used to be. That's really unfair to him. What he's doing now is a very fine job, and we'll leave it at that."
But there is an obvious comparison between then and now.
Valenzuela is using the same repertoire of pitches, mostly off-speed and featuring the screwball, and is hitting the same spots, mainly the inside and outside corners of the plate.
Valenzuela said: "Basically, almost everything is about the same. Always, I've tried to hit the corners and I have to, because I'm not a power pitcher. I have to do that and I have to throw a lot of pitches to do my job. I've been doing that the last few games, hitting the corners and using the cut fastball and screwball and everything. I think that's what's made me do so well."
Pitching coach Dick Bosman said: "All I know is what I see now. He's got some good control and obviously the knowledge to pitch has always been there. His arm is healthy. He's able to do the work. His pitch count is good. I just know what he's done now. That's what's important."
Lopes said: "His command of his pitches is getting much better. His off-speed stuff is obviously the key to his success, as far as I'm concerned. He has, of late, shown the ability to get that over the plate, or at least give the appearance that it's a strike where the hitter will go after it, which is just as effective."
Valenzuela's screwball still commands respect, so much, in fact, that Cleveland second baseman Carlos Baerga, a switch-hitter, batted from the left side in his first at-bat, on the theory that Valenzuela wouldn't throw the pitch to a left-handed hitter.
That was a mistaken assumption.
Valenzuela said: "That's what I've been saying, but I never told the truth. I don't want that to come in the [scouting] report. If I have the good stuff, I will use it, no matter if the batter is left-handed or right-handed. I like to use my best stuff."
On Tuesday night, it did the trick.