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March 24, 2007 at 11:27 AM

Youth springs eternal

As we mentioned in today’s paper, there haven’t been many pitchers over the past several decades who were younger than Felix Hernandez will be when he takes the mound on April 2. Dwight Gooden in 1985 was only 20 years and three months old when he opened the season for the New York Mets. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1981 and Fernando Valenzuela of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
I remember that year well, having grown up an Expos fan in Montreal. Valenzuela started a decisive Game 5 of the National League Championship Series (the LCS was a best-of-five back then) against the Expos at Olympic Stadium. The game took place on a wet, frigid Monday afternoon, the previous day’s scheduled matchup having been postponed by rain at a still roofless Big O. Montreal had Valenzuela on the hook in the very first inning, loading the bases with none out and the Expos’ top hitter, Andre Dawson, due up. In an at-bat that would forever haunt his otherwise impeccable baseball legacy, Dawson wound up bouncing into a double play. The lone run that scored would be Montreal’s only one of the game.
The Dodgers tied it in the fifth and then, in the top of the ninth, with one out and Expos ace Steve Rogers making a rare relief appearance, a long fly ball was hauled in at the warning track by Terry Francona (yes, the same guy). Whew! The entire country of Canada exhaled at once. Not for long, since the next hitter, Rick Monday, hit a sinker that didn’t sink over the center field wall for the ultimate winning home run. The day became known as Blue Monday and launched the long, drawn out process that — along with the 1994 strike — killed major league baseball in my hometown.
What does this have to do with Valenzuela? He nearly pitched a complete game that day after the early jam, getting two quick outs in the ninth before back-to-back walks brought Jerry White — Montreal’s version of Mr. October that year — to the plate. Valenzuela was replaced on the mound by Bob Welch, White bounced out and the Dodgers went on to defeat the New York Yankees in the World Series.
Oh and for anyone who thinks Valenzuela was really 20 years, 159 days old when he pitched on Opening Day that year? Try multiplying the number by two and you’ll be closer to his real age. Before that, the best I could find of a player younger than our very own Hernandez was Jim “Catfish” Hunter of the Kansas City Athletics, who was all of 20 years, four days old when he lost to Minnesota on Opening Day of 1966.
That’s four decades folks. Bodes well for Mr. Hernandez, who, unlike Valenzuela, still looks and acts like a 20-year-old. Trust me, I’ve been to his house. Seen him in action when the cameras are turned off. And you know what? There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. You only get to live and grow up once.
Here are today’s lineups:
Kansas City Royals (9-12)
3 Esteban German, 2B
16 Reggie Sanders, RF
24 Mark Teahen, CF
29 Mike Sweeney, DH
7 Alex Gordon, 3B
43 Ryan Shealy, 1B
11 Ross Gload, LF
6 Jason LaRue, C
30 Alex Gonzalez, SS
45 Odalis Perez, LHP
Seattle Mariners (10-15)
51 Ichiro Suzuki, CF
16 Willie Bloomquist, 3B
5 Jose Vidro, DH
28 Raul Ibanez, LF
44 Richie Sexson, 1B
6 Jose Guillen, RF
2 Kenji Johjima, C
3 Yuniesky Betancourt, SS
4 Jose Lopez, 2B
56 Jarrod Washburn, LHP
Uh, oh, Bloomquist’s going to play! I can smell the chat lines heating up. Lopez must be getting nervous. No, not really. But Willie B. has been fun to watch.



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