When the 2010 baseball season reaches its end next week and sportswriters start to tell the story, it’ll likely be remembered as the year of the rookie. Buster Posey, Jason Heyward, Stephen Strasburg… those three players, plus at about a half-dozen more, showed enough promise to assure that Major League Baseball will be vibrant and exciting over the next decade. They also showed the power of the phenom. The Atlanta Braves set a record for opening day attendance, largely because of the buzz around J-Hey (who repaid the huge crowd with a homer in his first AB). For the first time ever, fans around the country circled their team’s home dates with the Washington Nationals, in hopes that they’d get to see Strasburg. Baseball is more a team sport than an individual one, but still... there’s nothing like a young player, coming into his own.
On April 9, 1981, Fernando Valenzuela took the mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ opening day. He’s pitched well down the stretch for the Dodgers in 1980 as a September call-up—17 scoreless inning in relief—but he was an emergency starter on the 9th, filling in for an injured Jerry Reuss. He was a funny-looking little guy: squat, rounded, with a mop of hair and a delivery that had him rolling his eyes to the heavens before he threw his preferred pitch, a screwball (a pitch that hadn’t been popular since the days of Carl Hubbell). And he won that opener, throwing a complete game shutout. Valenzuela went on to win his first eight games, putting up an ERA of 0.50. The Dodgers became a star attraction on the road, while at home, Valenzuela’s starts drew capacity crowds, including large numbers of people from L.A.’s Hispanic community. Valenzuela merchandise became a hot commodity, and the media descended on his tiny Mexican village. By the end of the season, he’d led the Dodgers to a World Series championship, and had won Rookie Of The Year and the Cy Young award (plus the Silver Slugger… he was pretty good with a bat as well). 1981 saw a divisive baseball strike, but Fernandomania survived the tumult, and became the story of that year.
Cruz Angeles’ “Fernando Nation” covers its subject reasonably well, though in keeping with too many of the recent 30 For 30 episodes, it lacks that sense of a strong individual voice putting his personal stamp on the sports-doc genre. Strictly in terms of presentation, “Fernando Nation” is as generic as the shots of the L.A. skyline and freeway that open the episode. It’s a little lacking as a comprehensive piece of sports journalism, too. It’s light on interviews with Valenzuela’s teammates and coaches (and completely missing Vin Scully, whose perspective would’ve been invaluable). And though various interviewees talk about Valenzuela as having a Clemente-level impact on MLB fans’ acceptance of Latin players, Angeles doesn’t spend any significant time on the modern wave of Central American, South American, and Caribbean stars, nor does he offer any comments from those modern players.
Then again, the main reason that “Fernando Nation” seems so incomplete is because Angeles—admirably—tries to widen his scope to cover the complicated relationship between the Dodgers, Los Angeles, and Mexican-Americans. Dodger Stadium was built in Chavez Ravine, but only after the eviction of large numbers of Hispanics, who’d been told they’d be moved into a state-of-the-art housing project (a project that was cancelled when the man in charge was accused of being a communist). Angeles places Valenzuela’s debut against the backdrop of the Chicano movement and the emergence of the United Farm Workers on one side, and a new wave of anti-immigrant fears on the other, showing how Valenzuela was iconic to people who were feeling increasingly marginalized by their city and their country.
Angeles also shows—often without comment—the casual bigotry of the media, the fans, and the baseball businessmen when dealing with Valenzuela. We see Johnny Carson making a joke about Valenzuela finding work during the strike as Reggie Jackson’s gardener, and headlines asking “Is Fernando a bandito?” when he asked for a substantial raise in his second year in the big leagues. Here was a kid who made the MLB minimum thirty grand in a year—during a year when he packed stadiums and made piles of money for people using his image on posters and T-shirts—yet when he demanded fair compensation, he was threatened with deportation. He became so famous so fast that he was a prisoner in his hotel room during road trips, and he was such a gamer that he threw an extraordinary amount of innings in every year, and thus shortened his career considerably.
“Fernando Nation” raises the question of whether a noble goal of the Dodgers organization—to find, assemble and promote a diverse roster of platers—provided cover for a certain measure of economic exploitation of minorities, but Angeles doesn’t push the point too hard. (And rightly so; likely it was less a matter of malice in the way that baseball and the media treated Valenzuela than of unintentional thoughtlessness.) And for all its weaknesses, “Fernando Nation” is worthwhile for the way it shines a spotlight on a player who at one point seemed like a shoo-in hall-of-famer, and now isn’t talked about that much anymore. I just wish Angeles had followed through a little more on making this episode as much about the people who idolized Valenzuela, as his title implies. It’s moving for example to hear one journalist say of Valenzuela, after all these years, “He still matters to me.” See… there’s your movie, right there.
-A record-scratch sound effect to indicate surprise? Really, Cruz Angeles?
-It’s remarkable how quickly we get used to changes in style. During the footage of Valenzuela’s games, I was taken aback by the home plate umpires’ bulky chest protectors, which of course were the norm for most of my baseball-watching youth.
-Interesting too how in the segment on Reagan-era anti-immigration measures, we see a woman on a local news report complaining about being pulled over by the cops and asked for more documentation than just a drivers license. At this point in my life I shouldn’t be taken aback any more by how often history repeats itself, but man.
-When ESPN announced the 30 For 30 fall schedule over this summer, this slot was supposed to be filled by Alex Gibney’s documentary about Steve Bartman. Not sure what happened there. Maybe Gibney’s been too busy with one of the half-dozen other movies he’s made in the past year to finish his episode.