For The Love Of Fernando
Ed. note: In honor of today’s 2011 Major League Baseball All-Star Game enjoy this story of devotion y beisbol.
In the spring of 1981, the baseball world was taken by storm by a phenomenally talented and shy young rookie from Sonora, Mexico named Fernando Valenzuela. He pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers and, because of him, my family became lifelong fans of the team with Fernando’s biggest fan being my 66-year-old Mexican grandmother, who we called “Boya” (a nickname for abuela given by my eldest cousin).
As “Fernando-mania” spread in Los Angeles, my family happily jumped on the bandwagon and began rooting for this Great Brown Hope as he looked to the heavens with every signature wind-up and struck out batter after batter that season leading the team to the playoffs. We rejoiced that Fall along with the rest of our city when nuestro equipo (our team) won the World Series.
In the Cheap Seats
The following spring, my grandmother, sister and I made our first visit to beautiful, scenic Dodger Stadium and it was magical. We, along with my aunt and several of my young cousins, sat out in the cheap, bleacher seats and had to eat my grandmother’s pre-packed burritos and sandwiches instead of expensive Dodger Dogs.
Yet, just sitting out in the warm glow of the sinking sun to the west and surrounded by the cheers of devoted fans throwing bubblegum onto left field for Dusty Baker, made us giddy with excitement and anticipation for the game ahead. Since most of us had only seen the games on television, we all sat hoping to catch a lucky homerun ball.
We had eagerly learned the rules of the game and all the players’ names – Garvey, Russell, Cey, Yeager, Lopes, Monday, Landreaux, Baker…and of course, Valenzuela. Even though we kids were big fans of the team, no one could compete with my Boya’s devotion to Fernando. She never missed one of his games on television or on the radio and my mild-mannered, somewhat serious Boya was known to cheer pretty loudly at home or at the stadium.
As the spring rolled along into summer vacation, we spent plenty of hot weekday afternoons in our air-conditionless house listening to the games. As we’d wait for my parents to get home from work, the voice of Dodgers Spanish language announcer, Jaime Jarrín, would boom through the radio while we watched on the muted television set in my Boya’s bedroom. Thankfully, in order to keep my sister and me busy and get my Boya out of the house more, my aunt Lucia began taking us to Dodger games more often, along with her daughter, Wendy.
The five of us would arrive at the ballpark around 5:30 in the afternoon for a 7:30 game so we could get good parking and watch batting practice. Since there were fewer in the family attending the games, we finally were allowed to indulge in Dodger Dogs, nachos and soda. Yet, by some almost unspoken rule we all agreed upon, we would always eat before the game started so that once the game was underway, we could focus on the most important task at hand…cheering on our Dodgers!
We spent many seasons and innings in that stadium watching the Dodgers turn double plays, strike out batters, hit home runs, and steal bases. We enjoyed taking part in The Wave, the 7th inning stretch and singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” We even came close once to catching a lucky homerun ball.
Looking back, I still cherish this time spent with my four companions, especially my Boya. I knew even then as a little girl how special it was to have a grandmother who understood what ground rule doubles and balks were, even if she didn’t understand everything Vin Scully was saying in English.
After the games, my cousin, sister and I would run out, impatiently waiting for my aunt and Boya to catch up to us so we could get a good position outside the fenced-in area where the players parked their cars that we called “Autograph Alley.”
As the players would slowly exit the stadium, freshly showered and dressed, a bevy of fans would await them clamoring for autographs. My aunt and Boya watched from close by as my cousin Wendy expertly climbed the chain-link fence so she could reach over with paper and pen for the players to sign. My sister Christy and I would hold her up to make sure our mission was accomplished. We would leave each game, exhausted but thrilled we had collected more autographs from our favorite players.
Focused on Fernando
My Boya wasn’t concerned about seeing most of the players except for one. She didn’t know Fernando outside of what she read in La Opinión newspaper, heard on the radio from Jaime Jarrín, or saw on TV. Yet, when she spoke about him, it was as if she knew him personally.
When he would pitch badly, she would come up with “Es porque estaba enfermo” (“It’s because he’s sick.”) or “Es que tiene problemas con la esposa.” (“It’s because he’s having problems with his wife.”) We girls were baffled about her excuses for his bad pitching, especially when we were trying to win another pennant.
Boya didn’t care, though. She was Fernando’s True Blue fan and proudly wore her VALENZUELA Dodgers jacket any time she accompanied us to a game. She would always quietly encourage us to get Fernando’s autograph for her, but because of his immense popularity, we could never get close enough to him so that prized signature remained elusive. We promised her we’d keep trying.
As the championship-less seasons wore on, though, my Boya went to fewer games, preferring to watch or listen to them at home than to deal with the crowds at the stadium.
During one fateful game, Boya’s beloved Fernando was pitching and was being hammered by the opposition. He gave up one RBI after another until manager Tommy Lasorda yanked him from the game and replaced him with a fresh reliever. By this point, the Dodgers were being blown out by 10 runs so my cousin, my sister and I begged my aunt to let us leave the game early and find great positions at “Autograph Alley” before the rush of fans after the game ended.
No Autograph from Fernando
The three of us scurried off to “Autograph Alley” where thankfully no other fans were yet situated. As we waited outside the chain-link fence hearing the excruciating sounds of more runs being scored by the other team, we saw the players’ clubhouse door suddenly open. We all peered over to see who it was…lo and behold, it was Fernando himself. We looked at each other in disbelief. Here was our chance – we could finally get our Boya her favorite player’s signature without having to elbow any other fans in the process.
As he made his way towards one of the cars, we quickly moved to where he was heading. We each called out as we stood right in front of him, “Mr. Valenzuela!” “Fernando!” “Could you please give us your autograph? Our grandmother loves you so much.”
He never even raised his eyes to where we were standing in front of his silver Corvette. My cousin, thinking that maybe he didn’t understand us, asked him for his autograph in Spanish. Without any hesitation, he shrank into his Corvette and started up his car and backed out leaving three dejected little girls in the dust. As he raced off into the night, my sister and I looked at each other in shock and disappointment.
My cousin Wendy handled it as best as she knew how…she used every curse word she knew as loudly as she could even though he was already halfway out of Chavez Ravine.
Once the game finished, we were able to get a few players’ autographs, which helped ease our pain. Once my aunt caught up to us, we told her the entire, sad tale of being shunned by my Boya’s favorite. We couldn’t wait to get home that night so we could tell our Boya how that ‘fatso’ Fernando had been so rude and mean to us. We knew that, if anything, mistreating her granddaughters would surely change our Boya’s view of that chump. No more excuses!
As soon as we got home that night, we ran to her room and breathlessly told her our story. My Boya calmly peered at us over her bifocals as she lay on her bed while watching the news. She turned to us and said, “You girls shouldn’t have been bothering him. He had a tough night and the last thing he needed was you girls being pests.”
As my cousin and sister began to protest, I nudged them aside and went to kiss my Boya good night. I realized then that some love is just too unconditional to mess with.
Jennifer lives in a multi-hyphenated world. She is a Mexican-Peruvian-American entertainment industry marketing executive living in Los Angeles. Juggling it all is a challenge but she is thankful every day for the support of her loving husband, her beautiful daughter Julia, and her amazing parents and sister. Her last essay for the Tiki Tiki was The White Butterfly.