Yasiel Puig recorded his first major league hit June 3, 2013. In his first 10 games, Puig hit a grand slam, three other home runs, and recorded 10 RBIs while hitting .468. Puig made an immediate mark in Los Angeles and MLB, reminding Dodgers fans of Fernando Valenzuela and his exhilarating rookie year. Fernando is not in the Hall of Fame nor is his number officially retired; yet he is one of the most cherished players in Dodgers lore. Both men united the franchise on the field, but who had the bigger economic impact?
On opening day of the 1981 season, rookie pitcher Fernando Valenzuela started in place of Jerry Reuss, who was hurt one day earlier. Young Dodgers fans may not remember Fernandomania, but those who were around know that if Puig has been a spark for the Dodgers, Fernando was a forest fire.
Before Fernando showed up, the Dodgers were an unwelcome intruder in the lives of the Latino community. Chavez Ravine had been bulldozed 20 years earlier, yet the community still felt the pain of loss and displacement. In the 10 years leading up to Fernando’s 1981 opening day debut, the Dodgers averaged 32,254 fans per game in 56,000-seat Dodger stadium. Fernando was then plucked from obscurity in Mexico, taught the screwball, and unleashed on MLB and greater Los Angeles. In his thrilling rookie season, Fernando won Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award, while the Dodgers went on to win the World Series.
In the 10 years that Fernando played for the Dodgers, the team averaged 39,204 fans per game, a 21.5 percent increase on the previous 10-year average. In home games started by Fernando in his first year, the stadium saw an average of 48,430 fans per game, 13.9 percent more fans than the average attendance of 42,523 for that season.
Like Fernando, Puig played a large part in turning around a slumping Dodgers franchise. Upon his arrival, he breathed life into the team as well as the fan base, which came alive after a disappointing start to the season. With the complete turnaround in team performance and fan morale, the Dodgers went on to win the division.
Attendance at Dodger stadium in the two years leading up to Puig’s arrival seems stellar in comparison to the late 1970s before Fernando came along. Average attendance in the five years before Puig’s arrival was 42,750, significantly better than the 32,000 average in the 1970s. In the 2013 season and so far into 2014, the Dodgers have averaged 46,390 fans per game, an 8.5 percent increase.
It is perhaps more appropriate to look at year-by-year attendance for the period before Puig arrived as it varied greatly. In 2008 and 2009 the Dodgers averaged over 46,000 fans per game. In 2010, the beginning of the Dodgers on-field woes and the Frank McCourt debacle, attendance fell by about 2,500 fans. It fell again in 2011 to 36,236. Attendance began to climb in 2012 and is currently more than 28 percent higher than the 2011 average.
Clearly, Yasiel Puig’s arrival has had a positive impact on the team and on attendance, but other factors including new ownership and increased media attention have helped the Dodgers usher in a new era of fan interest and on-field success.
Fernando is the man who brought the Latino community and the Dodgers together, repairing a broken relationship and engaging some of the Dodgers’ most loyal fans. There are men and women who sit in the stands today to watch Puig because Fernando brought them to Dodger stadium over 30 years ago.
Both contributed to significant increases in attendance and fan interest, but while Fernando’s legacy has already been etched in stone, Yasiel Puig’s is still growing. No player has worn the number 34 since 1990, the year Fernando left the Dodgers. It remains to be seen how long Yasiel Puig will be a Dodger and whether he will continue to help the team win and draw fans to Dodger stadium.
*Attendance numbers are from baseball-reference.com