It swept nation in 1981 but took a decade to hit Arkansas with the force of a screwball-throwing tsunami. In June 1991, Cy Young winner Fernando Valenzuela played at Ray Winder Field in Little Rock. Thanks to a preposterous overflow crowd, the game has likely secured a spot as the most phenomenal sporting event in Arkansas history in terms of sheer attendance.
Ray Winder Field, used as the home as the Arkansas Travelers from 1932 to 2007, sat 6,622 in 1991 but more than 12,000 watched Valenzuela pitch. To deal with the overflow, former Travelers GM Bill Valentine had fans stand in the right and left-field bullpens and the warning track in the right and left field.
Almost everybody was there to see Valenzuela, the Mexican pitcher who’d starred for most of the previous decade for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers had released him in March, 1991, and the Angels signed him that May. They sent him to their minor league affiliates in Palm Springs and Midland (in the Travelers’ Texas League) to rehab.
Valenzuela played three games in the minors that summer, the last and best being in Arkansas. He allowed two hits, but struck out five and led Midland to a 4-0 win.
Were you there?
If so, I’d love to hear your memories of the game and Fernandomania. I’m writing a feature on the game for “Baseball on Broadway,” the Travelers’ annual magazine. Leave a comment that you wouldn’t mind seeing in print, or reach me at 501 588 1396 or firstname.lastname@example.org.