GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There should be more of a fuss. People recognize the pitching coach from Team Mexico as he walks around the Dodgers' camp - how could they not? -- but the languorous pace of spring baseball does not give way to more than a hint of Fernandomania.
The concentration of No. 34 jerseys in the crowd come as no surprise. An unscientific survey suggests they match the number of No. 32 Koufax models. But one imagines chants and flags waving any time Fernando Valenzuela pulls a baseball uniform over his orb of a body.
Yet when the WBC's Mexican team appeared for a pre-tournament exhibition against the Dodgers on Wednesday, the presence of the 52-year-old Valenzuela generated barely a ripple. Then again, the very existence of the Mexican team may be his own personal tidal wave.
Of the 28 players on Mexico's 2013 WBC roster, only nine had even been born by the summer of 1981, when Valenzuela and his screwball seized the NL Rookie of the Year Award, the Cy Young and the hearts of Chavez Ravine.
The oldest pitcher on the staff, Rodrigo Lopez, was 5 that summer. The son of a pro soccer player, he barely knew that baseball existed. Then, as he has put it more than once, "Fernandomania hit,'' and the kids of his Mexico City suburb flooded the streets to play a different game. Lopez's father never quite adjusted to the pace of his son's new passion. "It was so boring for him,'' he told the Arizona Republic three years ago, "he would fall asleep in the stands.''
Dennys Reyes, second only to Lopez in pitcher seniority on the Mexican team, became the object of a Fernandomania myth. As a young boy, he transformed himself from a righthander to a lefty, ostensibly because he thought scouts would comb Mexico for talent identical to Valenzuela. In truth, his right shoulder was damaged very early on, forcing the transition.
The greatest homage to Valenzuela still emanates from the Dodgers' clubhouse, managed by Mitch Poole for the last decade.
"We know what he means to the Mexican community,'' said Poole, who began working for the franchise as a bat boy in 1985.
"That's why I'll never give out No 34. I'll have to be gone from the job before that happens."
The Dodgers do not officially retire jersey numbers unless a player becomes a Hall of Famer. Valenzuela knows that, and he said he accepts the team's tradition. Asked what he thought of Poole's informal retirement of the number, he replied: "I just found out about it now. I didn't know.''
Poole said he had never discussed his policy with Valenzuela or any member of management. It just came about organically, and never faced a challenge until Manny Ramirez showed up in 2008. He had worn in 24 in Boston, but that was retired in honor of Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston. He looked at 34 as an alternative. Poole told Ramirez to keep looking. He settled on 99.
Members of L.A.'s Latin community have heard of Poole's policy and frequently thanked him for preserving that piece of the Valenzuela legacy.
"He's still a guy that, to this day, I call my friend,'' said Poole, an Anglo Angeleno who understood the significance of this particular icon blooming in the stadium that displaced, through the force of eminent domain in many cases, a neighborhood of Mexican immigrant families. ESPN's "30 for 30'' documentary series profiled the rise of Fernandomania with vintage footage of Chavez Ravine residents being carried from their homes to make way for the ballpark that would house Brooklyn's expat team.
"And we'd go on the road, and you'd see all these people wearing our jerseys,'' Poole said, "because of Fernando.''
He earned the fuss. His charm and talent pulled people over the transom of Dodger hatred. Only the rarest of athletes transcend team partisanship. This one arrived at 20, looking like no other major-league ace, an indigenous tribe member with shaggy hair, an oddball pitch, a physique that appeared to have lost a fight with a trash compactor and a habit of rolling his eyes upward and shut just before he released the ball.
Wise predators do something similar before attacking, closing their eyes to feign indifference, disguising their stalking instinct. Everything about Valenzuela amounted to a grand deception. He had athletic ability that pitchers with classic builds could not match. Nineteen times, manager Tommy Lasorda used him as a pinch-hitter; seven times, he got a hit. Lasorda also inserted him as a replacement in the outfield three times, and once at first base.
Lasorda probably overused him on the mound, as well, limiting Valenzuela's prime to only a few years. Now the team's color commentator for Spanish-language radio, Valenzuela has been the Mexican pitching coach for all three World Baseball Classics. The current roster includes Marco Estrada, Milwaukee Brewer and former Glendale Community College teammate to Valenzuela's son, Fernando Jr.
After warm-ups, the elder Valenzuela walked almost unnoticed from the field toward the clubhouse. He stopped to talk with a former Dodgers batting-practice pitcher who greeted him as Freddie. Then he stopped for an interview, delivered with the most unassuming manner one will ever find in a cultural icon.
"I like the way these players do on the field and off the field,'' he said. "They know how they should act.''
He spoke quietly and deliberately, just as he had in the past, and in the ESPN documentary. For an object of mania, he has always exhibited remarkable calm.
In the clubhouse, Poole said, he knew how to keep people laughing with well-placed pranks.
"He used to carry a rope with him all the time,'' Poole said. "It didn't matter how low your foot was to the ground he could lasso your foot.''
A poll by the Los Angeles Times in 2011 showed that 85 percent of 1,635 voters favored retiring Valenzuela's number. A 2010 ESPN poll showed that 35 percent of 2,896 respondents chose Valenzuela from a list of 18 former Dodgers as the most deserving of a retired number. Orel Hershiser finished second with 22 percent. But the Dodgers have not bent their tradition. He must be a Hall of Famer.
Poole remains equally staunch. "He is one in my book,'' he said, making the appropriate fuss, bowing to a bygone mania.