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Original Issue

This Duke's a real hazard

Albuquerque's Sid Fernandez is only 19 but he reminds everybody of...

Get ready for Fernandezmania. The Los Angeles Dodgers have a 19-year-old lefthanded pitcher shooting up through their farm system faster than a Minuteman missile. And about as destructive, too. Sid Fernandez was born in Hawaii, made his professional debut last year in Canada, began this season in Vero Beach, Fla. and last week was mowin' 'em down in Albuquerque. Next stop: Dodger Stadium.

After beating Tucson 4-3 last week on a six-hitter in which he struck out 10, Fernandez' professional credentials stood at 175‚Öî innings, 288 strikeouts, 74 walks, a 15-2 record and a 1.84 ERA. When the Dodgers drafted him in the third round out of Honolulu's Kaiser High two years ago, he was just another prospect. Now he's being called the second coming of (pick one): a) Fernando Valenzuela; b) Vida Blue; c) Sandy Koufax.

Fernandez is the son of a fourth-generation Hawaiian father and a Portuguese mother who stand 5'8" and 5'5", respectively. Sid is 6'3", 215 pounds, down from 240 last year. He wears it well despite thickness through his middle (see a). His face is somehow familiar—a melding of Errol Flynn, Warner Oland and John Candelaria. His style is unfamiliar. It isn't so much how fast Fernandez throws the ball (the mph ranges from the high 80s to low 90s) as how he throws the ball fast. "His release point is so low, it is almost impossible to pick up," says Ben Wade, director of Dodger scouting.

At the end of Fernandez' delivery, his neck is bent and his head juts out like a gargoyle's. "He gets so low he drags the instep of his left foot," says Albuquerque Pitching Coach Brent Strom. "He goes through shoestrings like water."

Fernandez' fastball doesn't rise; it beams up. Says Strom, "Our catcher, Don Crow, says that when Fernandez starts the fastball out at the ankles, it ends knee-high, and if he starts it knee-high, it comes in waist-high. Most guys work down through the strike zone. Sid works up."

And he works up fast. Fernandez went 5-1 with a 1.54 ERA at Lethbridge in the rookie Pioneer League last year. In his final three games there, he struck out 18, 21 and 18 batters.

Then he returned to Kailua, on the windward coast of Oahu. For a week he feasted on sashimi and prepared for the Arizona Instructional League. In March, Fernandez reported to Vero Beach of the Class A Florida State League, where he went 8-1 with a 1.91 ERA. Among his wins: two no-hitters, one one-hitter, one two-hitter and one three-hitter.

Fernandez had retired 48 men without a hit for Vero Beach, including a concluding no-hitter against Fort Lauderdale, when he joined Albuquerque to become the most phenomenal pheenom on a team studded with them. Wade says flat out, "He's the best-looking young lefthander I've ever seen."

Normally, the arrival of a fastball pitcher, even one with the credentials and reputation of Fernandez, wouldn't cause much of a ripple at the Class AAA affiliate. After all, Albuquerque's Sports Stadium is a hitter's paradise. And these are the Dukes, or, if you want to talk heat, the Nukes, the most prolific missilesearers in minor league ball.

Michael (Tack) Wilson was hitting .426 when he was benched for 12 straight games because the Dodgers' rookie outfielder, Ron Roenicke, needed to play somewhere. At week's end Outfielder Candy Maldonado had a .321 average, 16 homers and 61 RBIs. Outfielder Mike Marshall, the minor league Player of the Year in 1981, was hitting .390. Marshall moved from first base to the outfield this season to make room at first for Greg Brock, who had 77 RBIs and 23 homers. It was Brock who was lofting a grand slam toward Sante Fe when Fernandez landed in Albuquerque on June 10.

Fernandez, however, is caught in the vortex of Fernandomania. "I can't remember a day when someone didn't compare me to him," he says. "It's flattering, and an honor, but I'm Sid Fernandez. We don't pitch alike."

Fernandez came warily to Albuquerque, not wanting to offend. "Turned out the people were great," he says. "They treat me like another pro, not a 19-year-old. Nobody's called me rookie. Imagine how they could have reacted, guys like Mike Marshall who deserve to be in the major leagues."

The Dukes belong in a higher league. On Sunday, with one game remaining in the first half of the Pacific Coast League's split season, they had a 45-25 record and led the Southern Division by 9½ games. Their park is "the worst in America to pitch in," according to Jerry Stephenson, a Dodger scout and a former Duke pitcher (1972) and coach (1973). Sports Stadium sits on a rust-red mesa, with the flinty ridges of the Sandias as backdrop. The park is 6,000 feet above sea level. There isn't enough humidity for tears. The wind can scream, and it always seems to blow out, carrying the ball with it.

"Last year people would leave our games in the fifth or sixth inning," says Albuquerque President Pat McKernan, "not because they were bored, but we had so many hits they'd look at their watches and say, 'It's almost 10 o'clock,' and leave."

Note the lack of pitching lore. The team ERA last season was 4.25. Everybody waits his turn at Albuquerque, everybody except the pitchers. "I expect Sid'll definitely be up here [in L.A.] before long," says Wade, "although I don't make those decisions."

Dodger Vice-President Al Campanis, who does, last week dispatched Stephenson to critique Fernandez. "He's 19, he's got a bit to learn," says Albuquerque Manager Del Crandall, who caught Warren Spahn regularly. "I hope Sid gets a chance to work things out before big league pressure comes."

Fernandez, "nervous and scared," had his good fastball for his first start in Albuquerque, a 14-4 win over Phoenix on June 13. Eleven of his first 12 outs were strikeouts, and he finished with 13 to tie the Dukes' nine-inning record. He did all of this in only six innings because the Dodgers have imposed a 140-pitch limit on him.

With Stephenson watching his second start, against Tucson, Fernandez didn't have his good fastball, but that made the 120-pitch, complete-game victory doubly impressive. It marked him as a more mature pitcher than had been previously believed. Fernandez gave up two home runs and a run-scoring double. But he struck out the next batter after each of those hits and allowed only two hits over the last five innings. He got half of his 10 strikeouts on curveballs on the outside black. He even used a changeup to get out of one mini-jam.

"I pitched tonight," he said later. "I didn't throw. The guy on the gun had me at about 85 [mph], and he said it wasn't bad in the teeth of this wind. [It had gusted up to 35 mph.] This kind of game will get me into the major leagues."

"Our lefthanded hitters were lost against him," said Tucson reliever Randy Moffitt, formerly of San Francisco and Houston. "They said the ball looked like it was coming out of his uniform."

Tucson Outfielder Bob Pate, a righthanded batter who smoked a Fernandez fastball out of the park on a line, said, "I had no trouble seeing him, but you have to lay off that thigh-high fastball. It rises a foot."

"You've got to remember the park. He just needs to pitch, is all," said Stephenson. Fernandez does have trouble pitching out of the stretch. His windup is protracted, so the pause of the stretch and the annoyance of runners constrict him. He also has difficulty controlling the curve at these times (see c).

"Sometimes he drops his elbow and the ball will fly on him," says Strom. "With his leg action, he's similar to Koufax. I hope they don't rush him." Would a trip to L.A. this year be rushing him? "I think so."

"I know I can't strike everybody out," says Fernandez. "What makes me nervous is when everyone thinks I'm Superman. I'm aggressive. I never want to leave a game. I'll throw 'em fastballs. But I'm human."

Is he prepared for what can happen to a lefthanded/flamethrowing/innocent/manchild/folk hero/pop celebrity in the majors (see b)? "I know, I know," he says. "I think I could handle it. I sure would like to try."

When he does, don't pity the other Dukes. They'll be along shortly.