Why we’re all still part of ‘Fernando Nation’

As a followup to today’s column (linked here):

The working title that Cruz Angeles had for his quickly-recruited ESPN “30 for 30″ project was “The Bull and the Sleeping Giant.”

Fernando Valenzuela was the former. Fernando, “El Toro.” The other was the Mexican-American population of L.A.

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But that hardly conveyed what he wanted to do: Tell the story of Valenzuela, but also revisit and rejoice in “Fernandomania” one more time, in the way he brought a somewhat fragmented city under one magical umbrella.

Angeles, a Brooklyn-based movie maker who grew up in South Central L.A. continues to stress a bit even today that his documentary, “Fernando National,” which debuts Tuesday at 5 p.m. on ESPN (it repeats at 8 pm. on ESPN2 and at 9 p.m. on ESPN Classic), could have had more about how Valenzuela was taught the screwball (from teammate Bobby Castillo, after it was originally suggested by scout Mike Brito that he learn the split-finger fastball). Or why Fernando looked to the sky before delivering his pitch (“he said it was because he was in kind of a trance for a second, visualizing his target,” said Angeles).

Those can be seen as major exclusions. So is the fact that, after a 50-day player strike, baseball needed so much to get in the fans’ good graces that when it started the second half of the season with the postponed All-Star game, Fernando, still just a rookie, was named the National League’s starting pitcher. Think of how Stephen Strasburg might have fit into that scenario.

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But in the grand scheme of things — trying to document how Valenzuela made an impact on a culture and a city upon his arrival with a flury in 1981 — Angeles need not worry that Los Angeles will forget that part of it. We get enough screwball comedies on TV enough every season.

Starting and ending with Valenzuela’s connection to the controversial Mexican-American family displacements around Chavez Ravine between 1952 and ’58, the stuff in between will make your goosebumps rise again. Angeles was able to achieve both his goals.

Fernando’s story isn’t that tough to mess up, actually. The key is getting him to cooperate, which he did. And to speak on camera. In both Spanish and, for the first time many may hear it, in English.

“We only had five months,” said Angeles, who estimates they shot about 30 hours of material, and had another 60 hours of archived material to go through to cut down to about 50 minutes. Thank goodness most of the ESPN “30 for 30″ projects end up for sale on DVD with the director’s additional cuts.

Angeles was approached by ESPN for any ideas he might have for this documentary project, and he had already done some initial legwork in getting Valenzuela to agree to do something about his life. So he pitched it. And they’re weren’t initially sold.

“In a way, Fernando’s story has already been told through baseball history — it’s what Joe DiMaggio did for the Italians, or Sandy Koufax for the Jewish community … aside from what Jackie Robinson did,” said Angeles. “But there was much more context to put Fernando’s story into.

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That would be the history of the 170-acre land under Dodger Stadium, which bulldozed three communities of 300 families, most of whom had already moved away by the time the city council of L.A. and the county board of supervisors had given Walter O'Malley the spot to build the park. Those who remained had to be forcibly taken away, with the TV cameras rolling and the photographers snapping pictures.

That Valenzuela arrived in L.A., Angeles found out, wasn't so much by accident. O'Malley wanted a "Mexican Sandy Koufax” to bring back the local Mexican-American fans to the stadium, even though many boycotted the Dodgers, blaming them for what happened.

A key clip in the documentary is from then-general manager Al Campanis – infamously fired in 1987 when he made racial-heavy comments about African-Americans lacking “the necessities” of becoming a big-league manager.

“Mr. O’Malley, he would say, ‘Al, do you think it’s possible that we might get a good Mexican player? there are a lot of Hispanic-speaking people here and it would be a help to have somebody of their own playing on our ballclub.”

Yes, “Hispanic-speaking” was the term he used. It reminds us of how then-Dodgers broadcaster Jerry Doggett would refer to the “Latin-speaking” fans who jammed Dodger Stadium during the 1981 season to see Fernando pitch.

Angeles taps into people like United Farm Workers of America co-founder Dolores Huerta, author and poet Luis Rodriguez, former boxing champ Oscar de la Hoya, former L.A. Opinion managing editor J. Gerardo Lopez , former ABC producer Estella Lopez and actor Ray Lara to provide the Chicano context. Interestingly, Dodgers Hall of Fame broadcaster Jaime Jarrin, who was Fernando’s main translator at the time, wasn’t interviewed.

Several people identified only as “Dodger fans” are also on camera — it turns out that Paul Haddad was used because of his vast collection of Vin Scully audio tape — and a lot from Dodgers team historian Mark Langill also move the story along. Accounts from discovering scout and former reliever Castillo are among the most humorous, as well as from Valenzuela’s agent, Dick Moss, who came up the need for a $1 million contract when Valenzuela (who made $32,500 his first year and $350,000 his second) reached arbitration because it was a nice round number.

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The numbers we are reminded of with Fernando’s arrival in ’81 are still mind-blowing, starting with that 8-0 start (“and who’s to say when it will end!” says Vin Scully after he records that eighth win). Then over his career — seasons where he had 20 complete games and 21 wins, a no-hitter, the consecutive strike-out record in the ’86 All Star game. Why the Dodgers released him in such a undignified manner in spring of ’91 is still a mystery.

“But you can’t put into words what he meant — no one else will wear No. 34 as a Dodger,” says Langill.

Think of that as you see Steve Garvey’s No. 6 (even if it was to Joe Torre) or Mike Piazza’s No. 31 recently reissued.

“We need long-term heroes for our culture,” said Angeles. “This is a city founded by 44 Mexicans, and still today, we are treated like illegal immigrants. It’s a long history that we need to take ownership of.

“Fernando is the most American story you can find. We love the underdog. And with him, he represents how hard work and a Protestant ethic can achieve the American dream. He was very modest. He didn’t want to be in the limelight. But everyone has an emotional attachment to his story, and it still brings an emotional reaction. The people living in L.A. need that context.”

== More:
== What it means just for Fernando to smile at you (linked here)
== An MLB.com review (linked here)
== Valenzuela’s stats on BaseballReference.com (linked here)

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