|Fernando Valenzuela and Ron Cey celebrate following his game 3 World Series victory in 1981|
Sunday, April 1, 2012
Is it Time to Retire No. 34?
I know that the Dodgers have a policy to retire only the numbers of Hall of Famers. But when Jim Gilliam passed away in 1978, they broke tradition and retired his number 19. That opens the door enough for me. The Dodgers need to retire Fernando Valenzuela’s number 34.
What Fernando Valenzuela accomplished between 1981 and 1987 ranks among the best seven year stretch of any Dodger pitcher ever. Always the victim of poor run support, Valenzuela should have been a twenty game winner five times during that stretch. A true competitor and finisher of the games he pitched, his determination and drive combined with having a manager that wasn’t shy in allowing him to pitch beyond thresholds of normalcy probably cost him his Hall of Fame career.
Had Valenzuela been coddled and treated with care as pitchers are today, he likely would have been a premier pitcher for longer than that a seven year stretch. Valenzuela averaged 140 pitches per start in 1985. An unheard of amount of pitches by today’s standards. To make matters worse, he threw that screwball that required that additional twisting torque that had to be a major contributor to his arm problems in later years.
In game three of the ‘81 World Series, an absolute must win game after being down 2-0, Fernando threw over 200 pitches. Imagine that, 200 pitches in the modern era. That is unreal. (NOTE: It has since been noted that Fernando's pitch count was at 149). That is guts and courage. That is one of the clutchiest pitching performances ever witnessed in the Fall Classic because Valenzuela simply didn’t have 40% of his normal stuff that day. His pitches weren’t working, but he gritted out a win on determination and savvy, the things that normally are found in a veteran of many seasons. Not a rookie pitching in his first (and sadly, his only) World Series game.
When Valenzuela’s turn came up in the rotation, it was an event and a day the Dodgers expected to win. It was a day when visiting ball parks filled to capacity, even in cities that didn’t draw well. Not only was Fernando a drawing card, but he was as exciting as any player ever to watch. He unified a fan base and glorified a community with pride. To this day, his popularity is still evident with sales of his jersey and memorabilia.
In 1990, in what many consider his defining moment, Fernando tossed that no-hitter at home against St. Louis. In a season, 4 years beyond his prime, Fernando dug deep once more and came up with one more gem of a game. It was fitting that he did it, since he certainly should have accomplished the feat early in his career.
I know that the Dodgers have honored Fernando with several bobbleheads and promotions but wouldn’t the ultimate honor would be a retirement of his jersey. Fernando doesn’t have the numbers to make the Hall of Fame. His induction to Cooperstown will never happen. Voted in the L.A. Times poll last year as the 9th greatest sports figure in Los Angeles history, Fernando is the only non-Hall of Famer on the list. To that I say, “Let’s honor him at home.” Let’s add number 34 to the left field pavilion facade and never allow another player to wear his number. “El Toro” was a great Dodger during a special era. He should have his jersey retired.