Sunday, May 1, 2016

FernandoMania Meets the Mets

In the spring of 1981 -- nearly 20 years after BeatleMania and and an almost equal number before basketball fans experienced LinSanity -- a chubby, Mexican screwball-tossing phenom named Fernando Valenzuela arrived at New York's Shea Stadium with his Los Angeles Dodgers entourage and the press corps trailing in their wake.

Valenzuela, 20, had been a late season call-up as the Dodgers unsuccessfully battled the Houston Astros for the NL West title the prior season. In 17.2 innings, he'd fanned 16 batters, won two games and saved another.

The Dodgers made him their opening day starter for the 1981 campaign.

Fernando responded by out-pitching Astros 20-game winner Joe Niekro and silencing the division title holders, 2-0. It was only the beginning. Five days later, he'd defeat the San Francisco Giants and their ace, Vida Blue, 7-1. Next, came a 2-0 shut out of the San Diego Padres, besting veteran Rick Wise and then a complete game 1-0 whitewashing of the Astros and ex-Dodger hurler Don Sutton.

On April 27, Valenzuela pitched another 9-inning shut out. One month into the baseball season, he was 5-0, had thrown five complete games and had four shutouts. Over his first 45 innings pitched, he'd allowed just a single run.

A star was born. It was Fernandomania and it was headed east: first to Montreal, where he beat the Expos and then on to New York to face the Mets.

As good as the Dodgers were, already 18-8 and in ensconced first place, the Mets weren't. They were just 7-14 and though they'd beaten the Giants, 3-2, snapping a two-game losing streak on May 7, they'd done so before just 5,653 fans.

Friday, May 8, 1981 -- already 35 years ago -- would be different. A crowd of 39,848 would make it so.

As the Swedish pop group Abba once sang, there was something in the air that night.

To be sure, although they were in the midst of a losing season, their fifth in a string of seven, the Mets roster was already dotted with players who would play key roles in their eventual emergence as an NL power, some by staying and some by being traded away. Among the retainees were outfielder Mookie Wilson, infielder Wally Backman, reliever Jesse Orosco and the briefly exiled Lee Mazzilli. Those destined to be dealt away included infielder Hubie Brooks, relievers Neil Allen and Jeff Reardon and that night's starter, Mike Scott.

Not yet the Cy Young Award winner and Mets' tormentor he'd become just five years later, Scott, 26, pitched valiantly for seven innings. His efforts would be immediately undermined by shortstop du jour Bob Bailor, whose first inning error led to an unearned run. It would be all Valenzuela would need, but not before the Mets would mount their greatest threat.

Mazzilli led off the Mets half of the first with a hit and then stole second. Bailor struck out, but catcher John Stearns walked as did rightfielder Joel Youngblood, loading the bases for slugger Dave Kingman.

Shea Stadium buzzed with anticipation. The underdogs had the phenom in a jam.

Over the course of his 16-year career, the man called Kong played for seven big league teams, clouted 442 home runs and struck out 1,816 times. Valenzuela would fan him three times that night. But not this time.

The often all-or-nothing Kingman made contact of the worst kind, grounding into a 5-4-3 double play extinguishing the Met threat.

It was as close as they'd get to scoring. Valenzuela scattered seven hits and four walks while striking out 11 over his now customary nine innings for yet another shutout. His record: a spotless 7-0. Scott would yield just four hits, walk one and strike out six, but still take the loss, dropping him to 1-3 on the young season.

Along the way, Mets manager Joe Torre would be ejected.

Valenzuela would win just six more games in a season remembered mostly for a mid-year strike that cleaved the schedule, produced first-half and second-half division winners which played each other for the right to duel in the league championship series.

The Dodgers would go on to defeat the New York Yankees in the World Series. Fernando, though his record sagged to 13-7, won the NL's Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards.

Scott, traded to the Astros in December 1982 for outfielder Danny Heep, would blossom into a dominating pitcher and claim his own Cy Young and NLCS most valuable player honors in 1986, though that year's championship would be won by his former team, the Mets.

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