By John Philip Wyllie
With so much attention focused on the Padres and the hoopla surrounding the opening of another Major League Baseball season it is easy to overlook the fact that less than 10 miles north of the San Diego County line another professional baseball team is getting its season underway.
The Class “A” California League Lake Elsinore Storm features professional baseball in an intimate, state-of-the-art 6,000 seat ballpark and young, up and coming ballplayers battling for a shot at the big leagues. Current Padres Kahlil Greene, Xavier Nady and Jake Peavy began their careers with the Storm and no doubt several of the current Storm players will be donning the Padres blue and white uniforms in the years to come. One of the team’s newest members is Fernando Valen-zuela Jr., son of the Dodgers 1980s pitching icon.
After finishing his collegiate career at UNLV, Valenzuela played his first professional season last year in Indiana with the Fort Wayne Wizards. If you have ever been to Indiana you would understand why he is delighted to be back in Southern California just a short drive from his friends and family in Los Angeles.
“This is an ideal situation for me right now. It’s a great ballpark with great fans. My family was out here watching me today and it’s great that this ballpark is real close to home,” Valenzuela said at the conclusion of the Padres-Storm exhibition game in Lake Elsinore on April 2.
Valenzuela, the Storm’s designated hitter on this occasion, doubled and singled off of Padres ace Jake Peavy and later got on base with a walk. It was another small step on the long road from being a collegiate star to a Major League professional.
“I’m living my dream of trying to make a big league club. I’ve been through a couple of spring trainings now, so I am a little bit of a veteran. I just want to go out and do the best that I can. Hopefully, I’ll be playing in San Diego one of these days.”
Valenzuela is paying his dues along with his teammates right now. While minor league baseball lacks the glamour of big league ball, he realizes it is all part of the process. Overall, he is pleased with his progress to date.
“As a player, you are never happy where you are, but compared to what I was as a hitter and defensively at first base, I am where I want to be. I can always get better, but I am happy right now with my swing and where I am defensively. I just want to keep improving every year.”
While the game resulted in a 15-4 Padres blow-out, there were a few highlights for the Storm as well.
“Jake Peavy, will his low E.R.A. is somebody that could have really made us look bad today, but we had some good at bats and battled him tough. It was a good way for both (the Storm and the Padres) to get tuned up for the season.”
Being the son of a baseball icon, Valenzuela is a media magnet. The extra attention he sometimes gets also comes with a fair amount of good natured ribbing from his teammates, but he takes it all in stride.
“It helps me out a little bit. (As a result) I am a little more recognized. Today, for instance, the fans were yelling, “Junior! Junior! Junior! But I don’t take it too seriously. If you are not hitting the ball well, it doesn’t matter who you are, nobody wants to talk to you.”