ESPN 30 for 30: Fernando Nation (2010)

Directed by Cruz Angeles

One of the many beauties of sports is the phenom. That player who rises to great fame at the right time with the right time and then shortly thereafter seems to fade away, sometimes just a bit, and other times entirely. The nation is currently in the midst of one such phenom in the NBA with the rise of Jeremy Lin and what he means to the Asian American culture, and being in New York. Who knows how long it will last if at all, but he has captured the heart of millions and did so overnight. With baseball it is the same thing. Mark Fidrych is the first to come to mind, pitching a remarkable rookie season with the Detroit Tigers in 1976, coming out of nowhere. His personality, in addition to his talent, made him interesting, but I would argue that the ultimate baseball phenom of all time was Fernando Valenzuela.

Valenzuela quietly replaced an injured player for the start on opening day for the Los Angeles Dodgers his rookie year in 1981, but he certainly didn’t leave the mound that night as quietly after he pitched a shutout. What happened after that, as they say, is history. Fernando became a household item and a must see event as he went on to start the season 8-0. But what fueled the fire in LA was the fact that Valenzuela was a Mexican pitcher, which allowed the large Hispanic population of the city to take pride and turn out at the ballpark in droves. What is different about Valenzuela, other than his unorthodox, look to the sky delivery, was the fact that he played 16 Major League seasons, won nearly 200 games, and had over 2,000 strikeouts. And yet he is best known for one year where he won the Cy Young, the Rookie of the Year, and a World Series title. He was a phenom that lasted.

He was discovered on accident when a Dodger scout saw him striking out the player he was really scouting, along with everyone else on the team. Valenzuela is an incredibly marketable story because he came from a one shack town where he shared a bed with his 4 siblings; he’s the rags to riches story. But the fact that he came to Los Angeles when he did was incredible, and it is no surprise to find out the organization was looking for that Hispanic star to tap into the Hispanic population in the area, and it worked because Fernando was so talented. When the Dodgers moved to LA, they essentially kicked out a large number of Hispaic families living in Chavez Ravine just to build their stadium, which alienated a lot of would be fans in the Hispanic community, but Valenzuela won them back.

So with these two factors making this a great story, it must be a great documentary, right? Well, not quite. The problem with the film is that it manages to do absolutely nothing. The filmmaking is 100% pedestrian in terms of exploring who Valenzuela was, where he came from and what it all meant. Like many of the films in the marathon all it really does is tell the story straight, chronologically and to the point. And that style is fine, I have nothing wrong with it, but it flirts with ideas for great tangents to the main story which would have fleshed everything out so much more and accented that naturally great tale with some depth.

It serves as an average, passable presentation of the phenom of phenoms, in my opinion. Fernando Valenzuela was incredible, and I would have been lucky to have seen him. A popular “what if” question has always been ‘if you could go back in time and see something, or experience something from history, what would it be?’ I may not answer Valenzuela if I only had one choice, but I have always said I want to go back in time and watch all the greats of the game. If only I could go back to witness the first World Series, to see Lou Gehrig step into the batters box right after Babe Ruth. I could go on forever, but being able to see Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 would be there. It would be a destination, but like any great phenom, the journey was the destination and that summer is what defines Fernando in baseball history.

** – Poor


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