I was 11 years old and baseball-obsessed when the Dodgers won the 1981 World Series. The late 70’s had been difficult: we made the Big Dance in 1977 and 1978, but lost to the Yankees both times. Particularly excruciating was Game 6 in ’77, when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs on three consecutive swings at Dodger Stadium. I’m not saying Reggie bars weren’t good – milk chocolate with peanuts and a caramel center – but you thought twice before choking one down.
The Dodgers showed signs of life in the fall of 1980, tying with the Astros but losing a one-game playoff for the pennant. What I remember about that season is that Fernando Valenzuela appeared in relief. He was mysterious – they’d only called him up in September – and didn’t look like an ace, but he allowed zero runs in 17.2 innings, which seemed promising. The next year, he delivered on that promise and the Dodgers finally took down the Yankees.
I was happy to discuss Fernando and generally re-visit the events of my formative baseball years when I met sportswriter Jason Turbow at a family camp near Lake Tahoe. Literally, he was writing a book about the ’81 Dodgers at a small table outside the dining hall, where I encountered him every morning and peppered him with questions about Fernandomania, the 50-day strike that split the season into two parts, manager Tommy Lasorda, the legendary Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey infield, utility man Derrel Thomas (a rare practitioner of the basket catch), cocaine use in Major League Baseball, and anything else I could think of.
It occurred to me at the time that Jason might be writing the book specifically for me. I mean, could it be a coincidence that we’d run into each other in a place called Desolation Wilderness?!? Just kidding: it was a coincidence, but a monumental one that generated riveting conversation about baseball. Baseball wasn’t our only topic, though, because Jason is also a music fan, and even evinced an appreciation for singer/songwriters. It was, therefore, logical for him to propose my writing a song or two for his book launch, which was two years away. Plenty of time to ruminate!
I figured I could get the job done, because I’d already written a bunch of songs about sports, including one about Magic Johnson that came out as a single in 2018. Actually, I’d also written about the Dodgers, in the form of an epic story song about the 1988 World Series against the McGwire/Canseco As – the one with the Kirk Gibson home run – that I meant to fine tune and release but never did. That was fun, but I was drawn to Fernando because of his family background, meteoric rise, cultural impact, and various eccentricities. There were so many possible angles! But I’d never been able to find a way in. In my defense, this can happen to any songwriter when there are too many possibilities, or when a song demands fidelity to historical facts: you can get stuck between the guard rails.
Eventually, I landed on an angle via close reading of the section of Jason’s book about opening day. Fernando wasn’t supposed to start, in part because no rookie had ever started for the Dodgers on opening day. Like, in the history of the franchise. But Don Sutton had jumped ship, and the new #1 guy, Jerry Reuss, had strained his calf. Burt Hooton had an ingrown toenail, Bob Welch had bone spurs in his elbow, and Rick Sutcliffe and Dave Goltz had pitched in the freeway series against the Angels. Lasorda was left with Fernando, and it’s a good thing because the young Sonoran shut out the Astros, went 8-0 with an extraordinary 0.50 ERA, and triggered the all-encompassing social movement known as Fernandomania.
I performed On Opening Day (Fernando Valenzuela) at Jason’s book launch in Berkeley, where he provided light appetizers and tailored his reading to the subject matter. That was last June, which I remember because I was coaching a Little League All Star team and spent most of the party picking the brain of another youth-baseball coach. I trotted the song out again in late September, when I had a gig in Los Angeles and the Dodgers were sailing to the end of a dominant regular season. “Would they blow the World Series again,” I asked the audience. Yes, as it turns out, they would.
The annual Dodger collapse didn’t bother me, because – although I still hold a candle for the late 70s/early 80s teams – too much has changed: the players moved on, the O’Malley family sold out, Vin Scully retired…there’s nothing left except Dodger Dogs, and I’m vegetarian. I feel the same way about the Lakers, the LeBron version of which makes no sense to this Showtime-era superfan.
I should probably admit that there’s another wrinkle to this story: I live in San Francisco, and have two baseball-obsessed sons whose consciousnesses awoke when the Giants won the World Series three times in five years (2010, 2012, and 2014). Those hayseeds were genuinely surprised when their team didn’t win in 2016! Be that as it may, I’m along for the ride, because it’s all for the kids. Right?!?
Interestingly, Jason Turbow is also a Giants fan, but he comes by it honestly, having grown up in the Bay Area. It must have been challenging for him to have to think so hard about the Dodgers during the time it took to do the research and write it up, but at least he writes about baseball for a living. Maybe you’d like to support his professional career by reading an entertaining, edifying book? The paperback is out now. While you await free delivery from your favorite bookseller, please check out my recent conversation with Jason about the book and the song:
And, here’s On Opening Day (Fernando Valenzuela) in a more-polished form, with the words and images that reflect the story: