For me, one of the special benefits in becoming a baseball fan in 1993 was that I got to witness the comeback of Mexican sensation Fernando Valenzuela. Here was a guy who loved to play baseball, and his joy was contagious. As a pudgy rookie for the Dodgers in 1981, he set the world on fire with his masterful pitching, touching off "Fernandomania". Yet after a solid decade in which he won 141 games for Los Angeles, Valenzuela was unceremoniously released by both the Dodgers and the Angels (twice) during the 1991 season. Not ready to hang it up at the age of thirty-one, he recharged his batteries in the Mexican league and earned a shot with the Orioles.
After waiting until May 18 to record his first win in orange and black, Fernando bounced back. He tossed two shutouts, a rain-shortened eight-inning two-hitter against the Indians and a six-hit gem vs. the eventual World Champion Blue Jays. The latter effort sparked a personal four-game win streak. He finished the season 8-10 with a 4.94 ERA that was inflated by a rough stretch from mid-August to season's end. Perhaps noting that Fernando had worn down late in the year, no one signed him for 1994 and he returned to Mexico, performing well enough to earn a spot with the Phillies in July. He stuck around after the players' strike, having a couple of good years in San Diego (including a 13-8, 3.62 line in 1996). A rocky 1997 proved to be his final campaign in the majors, but the thirty-six year-old went back to Mexico once more and played professionally for another decade, even becoming teammates with son Fernando Junior in 2006!
I love the fact that Fernando Valenzuela pitched for seventeen years in the major leagues and roughly a dozen more in his native country. It seems fair to say that you don't play professionally for almost thirty years unless you truly enjoy it. Most people in Fernando's position would find it a bitter pill to swallow, to go from a millionaire with one of the most prominent franchises in pro sports to having to earn your way back from the bottom up on multiple occasions. I'm going somewhere with this, but I want to give the second half of the story its own focus. Look for that on Tuesday.