At his peak in the 1980s, Orel Hershiser was at the top of the National League, the ace of a stacked Los Angeles Dodger rotation. He was a marvel on the mound, one year stringing together 59 consecutive scoreless innings, breaking a 20-year-old record. After he underwent reconstructive shoulder surgery in 1990, forcing him to miss the entire year and some of the next, nobody could say whether or not the man they called “Bulldog” was going to recover. But he toughed it out, like his namesake, and ended up winning 106 more games, a testament to his tenacity and love for the game. The fourth Orel in his family (his son is the fifth), Hershiser always maintained fine control on the mound, mixing a wide array of pitches, including his trademark sinker. After his surgery he learned to adapt, and added a slider, two-seam fastball, and excellent pickoff move to his arsenal.
Hershiser was promoted through the Dodgers system to the bigs in 1983, and was placed in the bullpen for his first full season in 1984. When he began to struggle, manager Tommy Lasorda called him into his office to have a pep talk with the youngster, bestowing the nickname “Bulldog” on him. Whatever Lasorda said to him in the “Sermon on the Mound,” as the pep talk later become known, worked. Hershiser finished the season strong, even getting a bunch of well-deserved starts under his belt. In 1985, as the club’s number three starter behind Jerry Reuss and Fernando Valenzuela, Hershiser proved he belonged, going 19-3 with five shutouts, notching a 2.03 ERA. To top that off, he had a win and a tough-luck no-decision in the NLCS against the Cardinals.
But as commanding as his 1985 was, Hershiser was close to unstoppable in 1988. Perhaps no other pitcher has ever finished a season the way Hershiser finished his remarkable 1988 campaign. After pitching five consecutive shutouts, the sinkerballer broke former Dodger Don Drysdale’s record 58.2-inning scoreless streak by one out (giving him 59 innings) with a ten-inning scoreless, no-decision effort in his final start of the season at San Diego. With his eight shutout innings in the LCS opener against the Mets, he went 67 innings without being scored upon. He picked up a save against the Mets in Game Four the day after a start, finished the Mets off with a shutout in Game Seven, and followed with another against the Athletics in the World Series en route to becoming the first NL player to win the MVP in both postseason series. In the one series game he batted in (Game Two), he went 3-for-3 with two doubles, a run, and an RBI while surrendering only three hits, all to Dave Parker.
The following season, Hershiser once again posted a fine ERA of 2.35, but with little run support had to settle for a 15-15 record. Still, at the end of his sixth year in the bigs, the Dodgers ace had tallied 98 wins and didn’t seem like he was going to slow down. Then came a disastrous start in April 1990 against the St. Louis Cardinals, when Hershiser came off the mound in the sixth inning with intense pain in his right shoulder. After discovering severe damage in his right shoulder, the Dodger ace was forced to have arthroscopic surgery, taking him out of the game until the following year. He came back cautiously, pitching two games in the minors, and then rejoined Los Angeles, winning the last six of his starts to close out the 1991 season.
Even if he wasn’t the Orel of old, the fact that Hershiser did return to the game to notch 200+ innings in both 1992 and 1993 is impressive enough. His final years with the Dodgers produced average statistics, and he signed with the Cleveland Indians in April 1995. Regaining some of his pre-surgery magic, Hershiser went 16-6 with the Tribe that year, and picked up the ALCS MVP Award by raking in two wins with a 1.29 ERA.
Despite garnering 15 and 14 wins in 1996 and 1997, respectively, Hershiser’s ERA were well over 4.00, and it was clear the pitcher was in the sunset of his career. He signed on with the San Francisco Giants as a free agent in the offseason, and ended up with another double-digit win season, but a 4.41 ERA as well. When the New York Mets picked him up as a free agent, the club was looking for veteran poise and authority in the clubhouse, as well as a solid arm that could give the team a quality start. Indeed, one thing Hershiser was never short on was leadership and a strong clubhouse presence.
Hershiser was known to be a giving personality in the community as well as the clubhouse, getting heavily involved in many charities, including the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Harambee Preparatory School in Los Angeles. Stating that “you don’t have to be a wimp to be a Christian,” Hershiser attributed his devout adherence to religion as the motivating factor and source of strength during his playing years. He would often calm himself on the mound by singing Christian hymns, in attempts to drown out other voices in the stadiums. He got a chance to share one of his songs, with the nation in 1988, when Johnny Carson asked him to sing a verse on The Tonight Show, just after the Dodgers had won the World Series. A devoted husband and father, Hershiser would never smoke or drink, and steered clear of swearing. In the 1990s, he became a motivational Christian speaker, offering his services throughout the country.
The Mets got exactly what they were looking for in Hershiser’s 40-year-old arm and strong clubhouse presence. He ended up pitching 179 innings, helping the Mets to the NLCS, where they lost to the Atlanta Braves in six games. The following year, Hershiser joined his old club, the Dodgers, for one last shot at glory. Refusing to go gently into that good night, the pitcher put off retirement as long as possible. After floundering with a 1-5 record and 13.14 ERA, Los Angeles sent Hershiser down to the minors, and then reluctantly put the much-loved Dodger on waivers. He retired in July 2000, accepting a job in the LA front office as a player-personnel consultant.
Considered one of the wiser players of the game, Hershiser studied the facets of baseball intricately. Whether it was upgrading the quality of his pitches or his fielding, he would work hard, day in and day out. And despite records he posted in his glory days with the Dodgers, one of the most significant milestones came with his durability. Hershiser finished with 204 wins, 106 of which came after a surgery that could have ended his career. (AG/TG)