I was at Dodger Stadium last Thursday night for a special screening of "Fernando Nation", the new ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on Fernando Valenzuela. Also at the screening was Valenzuela himself, along with the film's director Cruz Angeles. The documentary airs tonight on ESPN Deportes and Tuesday night on ESPN.
Nearly all of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries have been phenomenal, and this one was also good. I didn't quite think it was quite as poignant or compelling as some of the others I've seen, but it's a great 50 minutes of TV viewing for any Dodger fan. My only real complaint about the documentary is that it felt rushed at times, and even Angeles himself admitted that he didn't get to include everything he wanted. Some of the 30 for 30 films have been 90 minutes, and others have been 2 hours. "Fernando Nation" probably needed an additional 30 minutes to realize its full potential.
Unlike other Valenzuela documentaries, this one focused quite a bit on the Latino community in Los Angeles. It told the story of how Chavez Ravine was once a thriving Hispanic community, and then properly noted that residents were kicked for a public housing project, not for Dodger Stadium. The head of the project Frank Wilkinson was accused of being a communist in the 1950s, and the land sat nearly vacant for several years until Walter O'Malley claimed it for the Dodgers. A tiny handful of stragglers stayed behind in the area, and they were famously portrayed on television as being forcibly removed from their homes.
The television footage led to bitter feelings between the Hispanic community and the Dodgers for years, and motivated O'Malley to find a "Mexican Koufax" to expand the team's fan base. It wasn't until 1979 that famous scout Mike Brito discovered Valezuela pitching in Mexico, and just barely signed him before the Yankees could.
The rest of the story is history, and "Fernandomania" swept LA in 1981, and he single-handedly converted the Mexican community into baseball fans, and more importantly, Dodger fans. His impact is felt to this day as the Dodgers remain extremely popular among LA-area Hispanics. The timing of Fernando's arrival is also examined, as it came early in Reagan's presidency, when unemployment was high, Latinos struggled for equal rights, and anti-immigration forces were growing.
"You can't tell the story of Fernandomania without talking about Chavez Ravine," Angeles said after the screening. "Every time we see a Fernandomania film, it's the same thing. It's already been made ... I didn't really want to make that version. I wanted to make a version about a community and a sports figure."
Despite Valenzuela's early career success, the film notes that he was probably overused as he threw double digit numbers of complete games six times in his first seven seasons while relying on a high-stress screwball. If Valenzuela pitched today, he would have pitched far fewer innings to preserve his arm. But young pitchers were handled completely differently back then.
The film is boosted by old clips of Vin Scully calling Fernando's games and one really gets the sense of how his incredible 1981 season rallied a community. It also illustrates how the pudgy native from the tiny Mexican town of Etchohuaquila struggled to handle his sudden stardom.
There was plenty that Angeles left out. At our screening, he lamented leaving out how Bobby Castillo taught Valenzuela the screwball. I thought he could have gone more deeply into the Chavez Ravine controversy. He also could have shown a little more of Fernando's career after 1981, and discussed how Valenzuela wouldn't do anything for the Dodgers until 2003, when Derrick Hall and Jaime Jarrin convinced him to come back as part of the team's Spanish radio broadcasting crew.
I'm having trouble deciding what Angeles should have taken out to get this other material in. I think at the end of the day, ESPN should have just found a way to provide 30 more minutes so that "Fernando Nation" would have felt a little less rushed. Still, I think it's a must-view for any baseball fan in LA.