There is a frozen in time quality to all baseball cards. This one of Fernando Valenzuela is a great illustration of that.
The stats for this card go up to 1986 with the classic retro wood panel look and comic book font that Topps used. It has a good solid action shot of Fernando pitching in what appears to be Shea Stadium. He was 25 years old when that pic was taken.
Entering the 1987 season, Valenzuela was still one of the elite pitchers in baseball. He finished second in the Cy Young ballot for 1986, the first year he cracked 20 victories. He finished 1986 with an NL Leading 21 wins and a whopping 20 complete games.
Basically he was putting together what appeared to be a Hall of Fame resume. 1986 was his sixth full season in the majors and was an All Star in all six years. Fernando-mania was still fresh in people’s minds, as the Mexican native who looked like a regular guy from the neighborhood won the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, the pennant clincher and a complete game victory in the World Series mesmerized the baseball public.
And he showed 1981 was not a fluke with three more top 5 Cy Young finishes between 1982 and 1986. He continued to be a solid post season performer with victories in the 1983 and 1985 playoffs.
Going into his 26th year, he just needed to keep up that pace for about 4 or 5 more years and talk of Cooperstown would be inevitable.
Then in 1987, he had a down year. Not terrible, Valenzuela still pitched a ton of innings and to a decent ERA. But he also led the league in walks, hits and wild pitches.
The next year, the Dodgers won the World Series and Fernando got his second ring. But he was not on the active roster for the post season as injuries (and lots of innings piled up) cut down on his effectiveness.
A few mediocre seasons (and a no hitter) later and his days in Dodger blue were over. Between 1991 and 1997, he bounced around between the Angels, Padres, Phillies, Orioles and Cardinals. Every once in a while he captured a bit of the old magic. He won pitcher of the month with the 1993 Orioles and ironically helped the Padres beat the Dodgers for the 1996 NL West title.
His career ended in 1997 and made it onto only two Cooperstown ballots, peaking at 6.2% before dropping off in 2004.
Valenzuela’s consolation prize was becoming one of the most beloved figures in Dodger history. Number 34 is still one of the most popular jerseys sold at Dodger Stadium. He is one of the Spanish language announcers for the team and gets a warm ovation whenever the TV cameras show him on the jumbotron.
But frozen in time in his 1987 card, we see him as a potential Hall of Fame ace, still dominating the NL with a screwball, a wacky motion and a sense that a pitcher who looked like a regular guy could be one of the best in the bigs.
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