BrooklynFans Of Books: “They Bled Blue” On 1981 Dodgers Championship Team

They Bled Blue: Fernandomania, Strike-Season Mayhem, and the Weirdest Championship Baseball Had Ever Seen

By Jason Turbow

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; hardcover, $26.00; available June 4

The 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers won one of the most improbable World Championships ever, as the fact they overcame a strike in the middle of the season to do it is just one of the remarkable things Jason Turbow reveals in They Bled Blue.

The Dodgers were led by their manager, the larger-than-life Tommy Lasorda, whose devotion to the team was unmatched and proclaimed through monologues about bleeding Dodger blue and worshiping the “Big Dodger in the Sky.”

Their heralded infield, which anchored by Steve Garvey, the All-American, All-Star first baseman, along with Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Ron Cey, was aware this was their last chance at a title.

Turbow says of how durable this group was, having made three World Series since they started playing together in 1973, “This is noteworthy given that the next-most durable quartet in baseball history had lasted only about half as long. Heck, the most famous infield ever – the Cubs’ Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance combo – ran only from 1906 to 1910. (Despite their durability, LA’s infielders could barely stand each other. Pretty much the only place they had cohesion was between the lines.)

“By 1981 the Dodgers’ quartet had collectively made 19 All-Star appearances and had long been considered among the sport’s very best units, but age was catching up. Lopes was 36, Cey 33, Garvey and Russell 32.  With an outrageously talented farm system behind them, each veteran knew his days were numbered. That’s part of what made the run-up to the 1981 championship so special: It was the Dodgers’ last chance as currently constituted, and they knew it.”

While the veterans gave solid performances, the most memorable part of the season was the emergence of someone who literally came out of nowhere.

A twenty-year-old lefthanded pitcher named Fernando Valenzuela, who threw a screwball and had a wild delivery in which he would look up at the sky, would light the team on fire. Fernandomania swept the nation as he went on an incredible run of dominance.

“In 1981 he was (that special),” Turbow says of Valenzuela. “In the early going there was nobody better – not just that season but ever. Fernando made his first-ever major league start on opening day and shut out the defending division champion Astros on five hits. By the time he’d beaten Montreal in his eighth start, on May 14, his numbers were beyond staggering: An 8-0 record, seven complete games (plus nine innings in the other, which went 10 and in which Fernando picked up the victory), five shutouts, 8.5 strikeouts per game against only about two walks, and a 0.50 ERA. It was the best start to a pitching career in baseball history.

“Valenzuela himself was a curiosity, a chubby lefthander who in no way resembled a professional athlete. His Mayan features were accentuated by bushy black hair spilling straight down from his cap, and his windup included a unique hitch in which he gazed skyward while clasping his hands above his head. Fernando was 20 years old, from a truck farm on the dusty plains of Mexico, and spoke no English, requiring Spanish-language broadcaster Jaime Jarin to translate at every turn. He was also entirely unflappable, going so far as to blow bubble-gum bubbles in the middle of his delivery. That his out-pitch was a screwball seemed somehow fitting.

“But that’s only part of the story. The other has to do with an LA fanbase that was startlingly devoid of local Mexicans despite their civic abundance. Los Angeles was home to more Mexican nationals than anyplace outside of Mexico City, yet the Dodgers had been almost entirely unable to tap into that market, despite increasingly fervent efforts to do so. That was largely due to the land upon which their stadium sat having once been home to a thriving community of Mexican ex-pats, who’d been forcibly evicted in a government seizure that ended up placing Walter O’Malley’s team from Brooklyn square in the heart of Chavez Revine. The local Mexican population never forgave the Dodgers…until a lefthanded screwballer from Sonora set the world afire in the spring of 1981.”

Jason Turbow.

While Fernandomania was huge, Turbow feels there was another star of the show that was not to be upstaged. “The figure with the most outsized role in this tale – and perhaps in the entire history of the Dodgers – is Tommy Lasorda.

“Starting when he joined the system as a pitcher in 1949, Lasorda’s main goal seemed to be making himself invaluable to the organization. He pitched through 1960 (three major league cups of coffee buffeting 284 minor league starts), scouted for a few years, and then managed at minor league outposts from Pocatello to Ogden to Spokane. By the time he joined the Los Angeles staff in 1973, first as a coach, then as manager, he’d become one of the biggest personalities in the sport, lauding the merits of the franchise every step of the way.

“The phrase Bleed Dodger blue? Lasorda’s. The Big Dodger in the Sky? Also his. Lasorda so loved the Dodgers that upon first signing on as skipper, he informed the assembled media that Walter O’Malley had botched contract negotiations. ‘If you’d have waited just a little longer,’ he told the owner in front of the press, ‘I would have paid you to let me manage.’

“Lasorda’s enthusiasm was unsurpassed, and his methodology as manager – doing things like hugging players after home runs – was considered by many to run counter to the way things should be done. It would never last, they said. Ultimately, it lasted for 21 seasons.

“By 1981, however, Lasorda’s teams had followed two straight World Series defeats to the Yankees (with teams thought by many to be superior to New York’s) with a dispiriting 1979 campaign that bordered on mutiny, and a 1980 season that also fell short of the playoffs. The idea that Lasorda was incapable of winning the big one started to gather momentum, and, with an aging roster, chatter indicated that he, along with numerous veterans, might be sent packing. Whether or not it was true no longer matters. The 1981 title put an end to all of it and cemented Lasorda’s presence in LA for decades to come.”

Turbow tells this story in such incredible detail and created a rich narrative showing the long process that went into this special season, making They Bled Blue one of the best baseball books you will read and a perfect Father’s Day Gift.

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