Baseball: Fernando II a blockbuster in Baltimore: Mexico's greatest is making a startling comeback for the Orioles. Rupert Cornwell reports

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE, for an instant, the impossible. You are at Old Trafford in the early 1980s. There on the field once more is George Best, alcohol and exile in American football a distant memory, bewitching full-backs as if he had never been away. A comparable baseball fantasy is being enacted right now in Baltimore - except it is real. Fernando Valenzuela is back.

It should at once be said that Fernando (as he is known to every baseball fan of a certain age) was never on the sauce. But barely six months ago, at the early age of 32, the greatest player ever to come out of Mexico, one of the most mesmerising pitchers in history, seemed finished, condemned to spend his declining years in his homeland as cannon-fodder for third-rate hitters who in his prime would never have laid a bat on him.

In America there are no second acts, said F Scott Fitzgerald. At least, there weren't any. Today he and the Baltimore Orioles could be on their way to a division championship; who knows, to the World Series. Baseball may be blighted by bone-headed owners and stars who bite the hands of the fans that feed them; but for its sentimentality you forgive it everything. And all baseball, secretly or otherwise, is rooting for Fernando.

It was 1979 when he first emerged, plucked from the backwater of the Mexican League by a scout of the Los Angeles Dodgers who knew pure gold when he saw it. But not even he could suspect that two years later, in his first full season, a plump, cherub-faced innocent from a poor village on the arid shores of Sonora would become a national icon.

For the fans, Valenzuela was the Man from Mars. He could speak no English. His background was a mystery; even his age (the Dodgers had to produce a birth certificate to prove he was the 20 he claimed). But as a left-handed pitcher, he was celestial. He had everything. A fizzing fastball, wicked curveball and slider - above all an unhittable screwball, equivalent of cricket's dipping late outswinger to a right-handed batsman.

He began 1981 with eight straight wins, and finished by helping the Dodgers win the World Series. He was the only player in baseball history to be named Rookie of the Year and carry off the pitchers' Oscar, the Cy Young Award, simultaneously. Fernandomania, likened by one hardened baseball writer to 'a religious experience', swept the country. Across America packed stadiums greeted his every appearance.

But the Dodgers killed their golden goose. Having worked that left arm to exhaustion in 10 consecutive 250-inning seasons, they released him in spring 1991. And after a disastrous two-game comeback attempt with the California Angels, Valenzuela vanished back into the obscurity of the Mexican Pacific Coast League, seemingly for ever. But to the reporters who sought him out in the flyblown ballparks south of the border, he was adamant: he was still good enough for the major leagues, he would return.

Almost no one listened until the Orioles took the chance in February, and invited him to join the team for spring training in Florida. Some said the move was merely to make amends for a boorish, much publicised comment by a club scout to the effect that Mexicans were genetically too slow to play baseball. But Valenzuela needed no second bidding: 'Give me a day to pack and I'll be there.'

At first the cynics appeared to be right. His Orioles comeback got off to a rocky start, a couple of rough outings and a brief demotion to the minor leagues. But as spring turned into the torrid East Coast summer of 1993, the muscles loosened, the control returned, and the years of failure melted away. One more triumphant night on the mound, and Fernandomania will again engulf America.

Before the Kansas City Royals picked up a couple of runs in a six-hit complete game on 18 July, he had put together 24 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings, the longest string by an Orioles pitcher in 15 years and including a shut-out of the Toronto Blue Jays. He went the distance again against Minnesota on Friday, for just one run. If the O's are only 1 1/2 games out in a thrilling AL East race, Fernando is one of the main reasons why.

Apart from an improved command of the English language, it is the Valenzuela of old: the same tubby gait, the same ageless face, the same imploring glance to the heavens before he throws, the same childlike addiction to a sport at which he excels. The Orioles got him for a one-year dollars 250,000 (pounds 170,000) contract, peanuts compared with the dollars 1.8m he was making in his prime with the Dodgers, and today's average major league salary of more than dollars 1m.

But Fernando does not care. 'When I was playing in Mexico,' he said last spring, before the miracle began, 'people asked me what I was doing there after I'd been on the top so long. And I replied that I just love the game. Baseball everywhere is the same.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- MAJOR LEAGUE RESULTS AND STANDINGS -----------------------------------------------------------------

AMERICAN LEAGUE: Boston 8 Oakland 1; NY Yankees 9 California 8; Detroit 3 Kansas City 0; Cleveland 11 Seattle 9; Minnesota 5 Baltimore 2; Milwaukee 7 Chicago White Sox 3; Toronto 9 Texas 7.

----------------------------------------------------------------- East Division ----------------------------------------------------------------- W L Pct GB Boston Red Sox. . . . . . . . 55 43 .561 - New York Yankees. . . . . . . 56 44 .560 - Toronto Blue Jays . . . . . . 56 44 .560 - Baltimore Orioles . . . . . . 54 45 .545 1 1/2 Detroit Tigers. . . . . . . . 51 48 .515 4 1/2 Cleveland Indians . . . . . . 47 52 .475 8 1/2 Milwaukee Brewers. . . . . . 39 57 .406 15 ----------------------------------------------------------------- West Division ----------------------------------------------------------------- Chicago White Sox. . . . . . .52 45 .536 - Kansas City Royals. . . . . . 50 47 .515 2 Texas Rangers. . . . . . . . .49 47 .510 2 1/2 Seattle Mariners. . . . . . . 49 50 .495 4 California Angels. . . . . . .44 53 .454 8 Minnesota Twins. . . . . . . .42 54 .438 9 1/2 Oakland Athletics. . . . . . .40 55 .421 11 -----------------------------------------------------------------

NATIONAL LEAGUE: Atlanta 13 Pittsburgh 1; Chicago Cubs 3 Houston 1 (11); St Louis 5 Colorado 4 (11); NY Mets 4 Los Angeles 0; Montreal 5 San Diego 4 (10); San Francisco 5 Philadelphia 2; Florida 7 Cincinnati 3.

----------------------------------------------------------------- East Division ----------------------------------------------------------------- W L Pct GB Philadelphia Phillies. . . . .62 38 .620 - St Louis Cardinals. . . . . . 57 41 .582 4 Montreal Expos. . . . . . . . 52 47 .525 9 1/2 Chicago Cubs. . . . . . . . . 49 48 .505 11 1/2 Pittsburgh Pirates. . . . . . 45 54 .455 16 1/2 Florida Marlins. . . . . . . .42 56 .429 19 New York Mets. . . . . . . . .33 65 .337 28 ----------------------------------------------------------------- West Division ----------------------------------------------------------------- San Francisco Giants. . . . . 67 33 .670 - Atlanta Braves. . . . . . . . 58 42 .580 9 Houston Astros. . . . . . . . 51 47 .520 15 Los Angeles Dodgers. . . . . .51 47 .520 15 Cincinnati Reds. . . . . . . .51 50 .505 16 1/2 San Diego Padres. . . . . . . 38 62 .380 29 Colorado Rockies. . . . . . . 36 62 .367 30 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

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