Commentary

Valenzuela pitched best game in 1981 World Series

Updated: June 24, 2010, 9:07 PM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees have met in meaningful games just 69 times, 66 of them in their record 11 World Series matchups and the rest in a three-game interleague series six years ago. Whenever anyone chooses to reflect back on any particular one of those games, they usually choose from the standard batch.

Maybe they reminisce about Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, when Don Larsen threw what is still the only perfect game in postseason history. Maybe they talk about Game 6 in 1977, when Reggie Jackson slammed three home runs to almost singlehandedly clinch the title for the Yankees. Or perhaps they look back at Game 7 in 1955, when Johnny Podres' eight-hit shutout gave the old Brooklyn Dodgers their first and only championship.

Rarely, though, do they talk about what transpired at Dodger Stadium on the evening of Oct. 23, 1981. And that's too bad, because it remains one of the most inspiring, unlikely and pivotal performances in World Series history.

The hype for that game began before the Series did. Each team had a rookie phenom in its starting rotation, and Game 3 would pit them head-to-head in a highly anticipated matchup. Both the Yankees' Dave Righetti and the Dodgers' Fernando Valenzuela would capture the Rookie of the Year awards in their respective leagues a few weeks later, with Valenzuela adding the Cy Young as well. But at the time, there was more pressing business.

[+] EnlargeDave Righetti
AP PhotoThe Yankees' young hurler, Dave Righetti, could not keep pace with Valenzuela.

The Yankees had swept past the Oakland A's in the American League Championship Series and had almost a week to rest up. The Dodgers had barely survived a loaded Montreal Expos team in a NLCS that went the five-game distance, the finale delayed by rain and snow until the day before the scheduled World Series opener.

Righetti was hardly the ace of a Yankees staff that also boasted Ron Guidry and Tommy John, and Righetti also had pitched the clincher in Oakland, so he was pushed back to Game 3.

Valenzuela, still just 20 years old at the end of a season in which Fernandomania had taken hold of Los Angeles, was the unquestioned ace of a Dodgers staff that also included Burt Hooton and Jerry Reuss. But the Dodgers also had to use Valenzuela in the clincher over Montreal. He held the Expos to a run on three hits over 8 2/3 innings, with Bob Welch coming on to record the final out with two men on after Rick Monday had homered off Steve Rogers in the top of the ninth for a 2-1 win. That meant Valenzuela also wouldn't be available until Game 3, and even then would be pitching on three days' rest.

Predictably, the well-rested Yankees had a fairly easy time with the worn-out Dodgers in the first two games in New York, winning 5-3 and 3-0, before the two teams jetted to the West Coast for the Righetti-Valenzuela matchup.

There was little panic on the part of the Dodgers. In the division series against the Houston Astros -- after the players came back from a seven-week, midseason strike, Major League Baseball had decided to go with a quirky split-season format like most of the minor leagues use -- Los Angeles had become the first team in history to win a best-of-five series after losing the first two games. They also had fallen behind 2-1 to the Expos, with the rest of the series to be played in Montreal, yet had stormed back to win that one, too.

"Before Game 3, somebody came up to me during batting practice, a New York writer," said Monday, now a broadcaster with the Dodgers. "This person said, 'You guys have to win four out of five.' I looked at the guy, and I actually chuckled for a second. And then I said, 'Wow, all we needed was a math major at the ballpark to tell us what we have to do.'''

It was that overall attitude on the part of the entire team that Valenzuela now says kept him from being unusually nervous as he prepared to pitch on such a grand stage, at such a young age and with so little experience.

"I just tried to treat it like a normal game,'' said Valenzuela, now part of the Dodgers' Spanish-language broadcast crew. "That wasn't easy, but we had a lot of veteran players who still thought we were going to win. I think listening to them, guys I respected like Dusty Baker and Steve Garvey and Steve Yeager, gave me a lot more confidence.''

Fernando pitched a little differently. The screwball was a big pitch for him, because it was a pitch he didn't necessarily have to throw for strikes for it to be effective. Hitters would chase it, and it came out of his hand very similar to his fastball. The pitch recognition wasn't always that high for the opposing club.

-- Dodgers outfielder Rick Monday

Confidence is one thing, but you still have to throw strikes.

The first sign something wasn't quite right came three batters into the first inning, by which point Valenzuela already had issued two walks.

"I had control problems, and it got me into trouble,'' he said. "I walked a lot of hitters in that game.''

The problem was that he didn't have his patented screwball, the one pitch he had relied on all season not only to put hitters away, but to get ahead of them and to set them up.

"Fernando pitched a little differently,'' Monday said. "The screwball was a big pitch for him, because it was a pitch he didn't necessarily have to throw for strikes for it to be effective. Hitters would chase it, and it came out of his hand very similar to his fastball. The pitch recognition wasn't always that high for the opposing club."

But on an evening when he not only couldn't seem to get the screwball over for strikes, Valenzuela also couldn't seem to get it near the strike zone, and the Yankees hitters were too professional to go after pitches that were missing by that much.

"I wasn't a power pitcher, so I always had to be able to hit the corners,'' Valenzuela said. "If you're five or six inches off the corners, the hitters aren't going to chase.''

For the moment, though, Valenzuela escaped trouble, getting Yankees cleanup hitter Lou Piniella to ground into an inning-ending double play. Ron Cey hit a three-run homer off Righetti in the bottom half, and it appeared the Dodgers, buoyed by being back home and having their young ace on the mound, were off and running.

The lead wouldn't last long. Four batters into the top of the second, it was 3-2. Bob Watson began the inning by taking Valenzuela deep, and Rick Cerone followed with a double. Cerone tagged and took third on Aurelio Rodriguez's fly ball to deep right, then scored on a base hit by Larry Milbourne, who was subbing at shortstop for the injured Bucky Dent.

An inning later, Piniella singled up the middle with one out, and Cerone put the Yankees on top with a two-out, two-run homer.

It was at this point that Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda went to the mound, the first of two pivotal moments in the game for Valenzuela. With the Dodgers already trailing two games to none -- no team had ever come back from a three-game deficit to win a World Series -- they simply couldn't afford to let this one get away. Lasorda had a reliever warmed and ready, and as he made the long walk to the mound, he wasn't sure he was going to make a change, but he wasn't sure he wasn't, either.

[+] EnlargeLA Dodgers 1981 WS
AP PhotoTommy Lasorda thought about taking Valenzuela out in the third inning.

"He wanted to take me out,'' Valenzuela said. "I could tell because usually, [pitching coach Ron] Perranoski was the one who came out just to talk.''

Valenzuela, who now speaks perfect English, spoke very little at that time. When Lasorda, who spoke fluent Spanish, arrived at the mound, Valenzuela made it clear he wanted to keep going. He had pitched 11 complete games that season and led the N.L. with 192 1/3 innings, numbers that would be unthinkable today for a highly touted pitcher in his rookie season. It didn't take Lasorda long to come to a decision.

"Everybody thought I was going to take him out,'' Lasorda said. "A lot of people wanted me to take him out. But I knew him. He loved to pitch out of jams. He used to pitch like he didn't know we had a bullpen. He didn't like to come out of games. A lot of guys, when they get in trouble, they're looking down there for help. But not him.''

Lasorda eventually went back to the dugout, but not without giving Valenzuela a few last words of encouragement.

"I said to him in Spanish, 'If you don't give up another run, we're going to win this ballgame,''' Lasorda said. "And then he says to me in perfect English, 'Are you sure?'''

Valenzuela confirms that story verbatim. Lasorda now says it was the last time in the game he would be tempted to go to his bullpen.

The Yankees' 4-3 lead would last a while longer, but the highly anticipated pitching matchup would not. After Garvey and Ron Cey reached to start the third, Yankees manager Bob Lemon yanked the left-handed Righetti and brought in righty reliever George Frazier, who would wind up becoming the first pitcher in history to lose three games in a single World Series.

Lasorda countered Lemon's move by finally making a change -- not on the mound but behind the plate, where he replaced the right-handed-hitting Yeager with a promising, lefty-hitting catcher who wasn't much older than Valenzuela, a hulking 22-year-old named Mike Scioscia.

Valenzuela settled into some semblance of a rhythm, although he did have to pitch around a leadoff double by Watson in the fifth. The Dodgers, just as Lasorda had promised, then reclaimed the lead in their half of the fifth, Pedro Guerrero driving in Garvey with a double and Cey coming home when Scioscia grounded into a double play.

I said to him in Spanish, 'If you don't give up another run, we're going to win this ballgame.' And then he says to me in perfect English, 'Are you sure?

-- Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda

Once armed with the lead again, Valenzuela faced the minimum through the sixth and seventh, a leadoff walk to Willie Randolph in the sixth was erased when Scioscia threw him out trying to steal second base.

Still, Valenzuela wasn't quite finished with his high-wire act.

The second pivotal moment for Valenzuela came in the top of the eighth, when he immediately ran into more trouble. Rodriguez led off the inning with a single through the left side, and Milbourne followed by beating out a slow roller, putting runners on first and second, nobody out and the pitcher's spot due up. Lemon then sent the late Bobby Murcer, by then a veteran in the twilight of his career, to pinch hit for Rudy May.

Today, a pennant-winning team from the offense-oriented A.L. probably wouldn't think of bunting in a situation like that. Twenty-nine years ago, it was fairly textbook: Murcer's job was to advance the runners. Unfortunately for him, and for the Yankees, he tried to do it on a pitch that was high and outside.

"I think that was the key to the whole game,'' Valenzuela said. "Bobby Murcer hit that little pop fly. Cey was playing in, and he made a great play.''

[+] EnlargeLA Dodgers 1981 WS
AP PhotoRon Cey made a tremendous diving catch to stop a Yankees rally.

The ball arced off Murcer's bat into foul territory, about halfway up the third-base line. Cey charged, went airborne and just got his glove between the ball and the grass, then popped up as quickly as he could and fired to first to double up Milbourne. Suddenly, Valenzuela was an out away from escaping yet another jam. Rodriguez then did the Dodgers another favor, running almost directly into Cey's tag when Randolph hit a tough grounder to third.

Valenzuela went to the ninth having retired the Yankees in order just once in the game, but he did it again to finish them off, getting Jerry Mumphrey to ground to second and Dave Winfield to fly to right before striking out Piniella on a fastball to end it.

"I was just so happy I had done my job,'' Valenzuela said.

Nine innings, nine hits, four runs earned, six strikeouts and seven walks. And one very big win in the long, storied history of the Dodgers.

The late Howard Cosell, who was in the booth for ABC, basically yelled into homes all across America, "What a gutty performance.''

Vin Scully, the longtime Dodgers broadcaster who was working that Series for CBS Radio but now says he remembers very little about that game, came up with a typically concise, typically eloquent observation immediately after Piniella struck out: "It wasn't Fernando's best performance, it was his finest performance.''

Jaime Jarrin, the Dodgers' Hall of Fame Spanish-language broadcaster who was pulling double duty that season as Valenzuela's media translator, said that like Scully, he has little recollection of the details of that night. But he did say this about it earlier this week: "It was the gutsiest game he ever pitched. I think he was in trouble the whole night.''

The Dodgers wouldn't lose another game in that World Series, becoming the second team in history to lose the first two games and then sweep the next four after the Yankees had done exactly the same thing to them three years earlier. Valenzuela would have pitched Game 7 if it had come to pass. He could have even pitched Game 6 on normal rest after it was rained out and pushed back a day, but Valenzuela says Lasorda never considered that.

As it turned out, it was the only World Series game Valenzuela would ever pitch in his career. He was injured when the Dodgers returned to the Series in 1988. But it was the perfect ending to a season in which he became the first rookie ever to capture the Cy Young Award. The season had begun with him ticketed for the bullpen, but he was named the opening-day starter with less than 24 hours' notice when Reuss came down with an injury and had to be scratched.

[+] EnlargeRick Monday
AP Photo/Rusty KennedyRick Monday's home run against the Expos put the Dodgers in the 1981 World Series.

Valenzuela responded, of course, with a five-hit shutout of the Houston Astros, then went on to pitch shutouts in five of his first seven starts and complete games in seven of his first eight. Along the way, he became a cultural icon, singlehandedly creating an entirely new fan base for the Dodgers among the city's huge Mexican-American population that still exists today. Fernandomania, as it came to be called, is now an indelible part of the team's history.

And yet, for whatever reason, that seemingly unforgettable performance by Valenzuela in Game 3 of the 1981 World Series has been largely forgotten, lost among so many other memorable moments in the history of the Dodgers-Yankees rivalry.

Valenzuela hasn't forgotten it. Nor will he ever.

"I say this all the time when people ask me what the best moments of my career were,'' he said. "I tell them I have two. The first was the first game I ever started in the big leagues against Houston. That was very, very big for me, because if I didn't win or do a good job, I might never have gotten that opportunity again, and then who knows what would have happened? The other one was that World Series game. I don't rank either one of them first or second. I consider them both the No. 1 moment for me.

"It was just such a great feeling, being a rookie, pitching in the big leagues, pitching in the World Series and winning.''

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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