Tuesday, Valenzuela, one of my childhood heroes, had his number 34 jersey retired.
There was a whole weekend of festivities in his honor, including a video of his brothers and sister congratulating him all the way from Mexico.
His story always made me proud to be Mexican while I was growing up in the 1980s, when it wasn’t a particularly great time to be Mexican.
I love the uniqueness of his windup, the way he rolled his eyes up toward the sky before each pitch, and his humble beginnings as the youngest of 12 children who grew up in Etchohuaquila, a small town within the municipality of Navojoa in the state of Sonora, Mexico.
He was as unlikely a hero as they come, but a hero he definitely was, unleashing “Fernandomania” after his debut in 1980. I don’t need to tell you that guy is a living legend. The servers and cooks at a diner I frequent will tell you with reverence that he comes in once a week on Thursdays with his wife.
He was part of the 2020 World Series Championship and was recently traded back from the Chicago White Sox back to the Dodgers. Not only is he a great pitcher, but also he has won the heart of a slew of fans, including my alter ego, Tia Lencha, who calls him “Sexy Joe Kelly.” She’s obsessed.
At first, she didn’t know that he was even Mexican. Then she saw his videos of him dancing salsa in the outfield. He attributed this urge to dance salsa to moves his Mexican American mother taught him after urging him to take lessons when he was a child.
In 2020, however, Joe Kelly landed squarely on the map as a Mexican-American hero.
Backstory: the Dodgers had been beaten by the Astros in the 2018 World Series when they were cheating. Yes, they were caught cheating, but Major League Baseball didn’t really punish them. So the Astros earned the wrath of baseball fans everywhere (they are still booed wherever they play today). But back then, there was no consequence until the Dodgers and Astros were playing a game Joe Kelly throws behind Alex Bregman’s head then almost hits Carlos Correa, then strikes him out then talks shit and mocks Correa, making a pouty face. Sure, this led to a bench-clearing brawl and an 8-game suspension for Kelly, but man did it feel good.
There is a mural of Joe Kelly making the pouty face in Silverlake where many fans go to take pictures and pay their respects to gangsta Joe Kelly.
Then, later in 2020, Joe Kelly traded one of his jerseys with a real mariachi that came to play at Dodger Stadium.
He decided to wear the charro jacket with some skinny blank pants that he borrowed from his teammate Mookie Betts, in celebration of his Mexican heritage to the Dodgers’ championship trip to the White House following the 2020 season. This was how “Mariachi Joe” was born. He instantly trended on the Internet as a meme and led multiple fans to sell photo-shopped pictures of Kelly in front of the logo for Tapatío hot sauce.
Okay, this is where our third unlikely hero comes in: Pablo Vallin.
Tia Lencha (who is a big Dodger fan) met Pablo on an online Dodger fan groups.
Tia Lencha was already in love with Sexy Joe Kelly, so she decided to contact Vallin and get a mini Joe Kelly for herself to have and to hold. She ended up talking to Vallin and learning about his life. Vallin grew up in Mission Hills, California where Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, and George Lopez grew up and two blocks away from Richie Valens, who put the Valley on the map, is buried.
Instead of joining gangs, he instead did sports. He had a short career as a boxer where he won Golden Gloves. Life took some turns and he became a janitor who made custom Dodgers paraphernalia in his spare time, on the side, when he could. “This guy is an artista,” Tia Lencha said, “like the guy who paint the ceiling of that church, ju know, was his name? Like the ninja turtle? Michelangelo!”
A few radio stations and sports sites interviewed Vallin and showed the moment in 2021 when Vallin handed Joe Kelly the original bobblehead personally. It was such a victory for Vallin, that is, until the copycat corporate guys came to play. First, there was a company (whose name rhymes with Moco) that made the first copycat bobble head. You can tell it’s different right away, mostly because it’s got Mariachi Joe wearing short pants that my mother calls “brinca charcos” or puddle jumper. Way too short and it looks like Sexy Joe Kelly has cankles, which he most definitely doesn’t.
This week the Dodgers announced that there is going to be another Joe Kelly bobblehead giveaway featuring copycat bobblehead #2. This bobblehead has the correct length pants but is missing Kelly’s glasses that he wears to pitch. It also has the same exact pose as Vallin’s original bobblehead. No copyright protection or lawyers are involved. Vallin has been ripped off twice.
This week I also watched the movie Flaming Hot. It made me think about my janitor father as well as the American Dream for Mexican Americans. Many of my friends and family see it as an inspirational movie, especially for the idea that corporate America can acknowledge and include Mexicanos as part of their market. There’s the storied aspect of the rags to riches story, the janitor who lands a full-time job with a 401-K. However, what really got me was the idea that Mexicans can see themselves and their culture on the shelves.
Pablo Vallin would like his story to have an inspirational ending. He would like to be credited with the original version of the theme bobblehead and possibly work for the Dodgers on future bobblehead projects.
To finish off the week, Austin Barnes, the Mexican-American backup catcher for the Dodgers, hit his first home run in 331 days. Yes, he’s been struggling tremendously this year and fans in the Dodger groups online have been mocking him mercilessly. However, tonight, he was the unlikely hero. It made the whole difference in a game that the Dodgers won 1-0.
I’m thinking that if Austin Barnes can be the hero, then Pablo Vallin can too.