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My Favorite Player: Orel Hershiser and One Brilliant Summer

Photo credit: Jim Accordino on Flickr, http://goo.gl/UwXGkY http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

In the summer of 1988, as a 12-year-old boy, I had a magical baseball summer. Over the course of a few short weeks, my grandfather introduced me to Vin Scully, Dodger Dogs, the LA Times’ Jim Murray, and Orel Hershiser. The timing was perfect. In 1988, the Dodgers raced to the NL Pennant and a World Series victory over the seemingly invincible Oakland A’s. The Dodgers’ ace, Hershiser, ripped off a string of dominant performances and scoreless innings that defied all explanations. I have never loved baseball as much as I did that summer.

Orel Hershiser became my favorite player because even I, a newcomer to the baseball world, could tell that he was in the midst of something transcendent. My baseball education was long overdue. Growing up near Denver, I had no hometown Major League team. But each summer, I spent several weeks with my grandparents in Sierra Madre (just east of Pasadena), California. My grandfather loved the Dodgers. The club’s games were always on in the background. Long days spent at the pool with my cousins and grandmother were followed by watching the Dodgers. I can still remember the feeling of smog in my chest from an afternoon of swimming, mixed with the resonate tones of Scully at the microphone. During that summer, I quickly learned about John Shelby’s problems with the curveball. I admired Steve Sax’s play at second base (long before he became that Steve Sax). And I came to agree with the much-told story that one certainly shouldn’t put eye black in Kirk Gibson’s cap in spring training—not when there was a winning culture to establish.

Orel Hershiser’s 1988 season followed on the heels of two .500 campaigns. But Hershiser, an all-star in 1987, had emerged as a front-line starter for the Dodgers. Tommy Lasorda called him “Bulldog,” mostly because he doubted Hershiser’s toughness. Or at least Lasorda thought his pitcher needed to be goaded into a more competitive state. Hershiser’s rise through the minors had been relatively pedestrian. Systematic and incremental improvement brought Hershiser (a 17th round pick in 1979) through AAA Albuquerque to the Dodgers in 1983. He became a starter the following season. A 19–3 record, as a 26-year-old in 1985, earned the pitcher a $1 million contract.

Certainly no one saw Orel Hershiser’s or the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 1988 season coming. Major League competence doesn’t typically beget greatness. By June though, the LA Times beat reporters began to note Hershiser’s maturation. Facing the still-flame-throwing Nolan Ryan and the Houston Astros, Hershiser more than held his own. “Hershiser dominated the Houston Astros in his own way,” the Times reported. Smarts and control resulted in plentiful groundouts. Hershiser earned his 12th victory in 15 decisions. In what now seems to be a strange fixation, the LA Times and other newspapers picked up on his technique and technology. “Hershiser, who logs his pitching data on a lap-top computer, may soon get a reputation for being the most mechanically sound pitcher in the game.”

My decision to adore Hershiser above of all other Dodgers was cemented when he made the 1988 All-Star Game and Gibson decided to stay home. Gibson wanted the time off, to relax and rehab in his native Michigan. As a 12-year-old, I was befuddled and irritated. Who skips the All-Star Game to rest? Not a Bulldog like Hershiser. Adding further to Hershiser’s resume of greatness (again in my 12-year-old mind) were stories of his everyman qualities, his overcoming struggles in the minor leagues, and his profession that he was a devout Christian.

The streak began on August 30 in baseball’s humblest venue: Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Four scoreless innings at the tail end of a solid start inaugurated Hershiser’s march towards Don Drysdale’s record of 58 consecutive scoreless innings. By this time, summer had ended and I was back in school in Colorado. But I followed Hershiser and the Dodgers as fastidiously as a 12-year-old in the pre-Internet era could. On September 10, Hershiser earned his 20th win of the season, pitching his fifth straight complete game. The Los Angeles Times still didn’t mention the 20-plus consecutive innings of scoreless pitching. Instead, Cy Young possibilities, the National League West race, and questions about Hershiser’s soon-to-arrive child dominated the reports.

In 1988, Orel Hershiser topped former Dodger Don Drysdale’s 1968 record of 58 consecutive scoreless innings pitched.

By late September, talk of Hershiser’s streak matched pennant race fever. On the 23rd, Hershiser pitched a complete game, five-hit shutout versus the San Francisco Giants. Amazingly, it was Hershiser’s eighth straight complete game, and his 15th full-framer of the season (most in the NL in 1988). Hershiser had increased his consecutive scoreless innings tally to 49, and this in the midst of a tight pennant race. The Dodgers did not clinch the NL West until September 26, 1988. And to add to the pressure, Hershiser pitched shutdown ball as the Dodger bats went cold. The Dodgers scored one, one, three, and zero runs in Hershiser’s September 14, 19, 23, and 29 starts.

The ending of the streak and of the Dodgers 1988 season was nearly perfect. Hershiser had one remaining start in the regular season and needed 9 scoreless innings to tie Drysdale’s record. Headlines such as “Fraction Won’t Fracture Drysdale Record” introduced me to baseball’s intense statistical arguments. Was the record 58 2/3 scoreless innings, as Drysdale himself contended? Or was it just 58? All I wanted to know was what Hershiser needed to break the mark. Fittingly for 1988, Hershiser answered all questions. On September 28, 1988, he pitched not nine, but 10 scoreless innings versus the San Diego Padres. He claimed the record with 59 consecutive scoreless innings. It was a dominant end to a sensational season. But it was also a tidy and satisfying finish that fit with a young fan’s perception of the way a season should end.

The playoffs then topped the fairytale regular season. Appearing four times in the NLCS, Hershiser propelled the Dodgers to a seven-game victory over the New York Mets. He earned the series MVP. Facing the heavily favored Oakland Athletics in the World Series, Hershiser won his two starts. In his Game 2 start, he had as many hits (3) as he allowed his opponents. He pitched a complete-game shutout. Hershiser closed out the Series as well. Giving up a couple of runs this time, he won Game 5 and earned the World Series MVP. 

Photo Credit: Peter Bond on Flickr, http://goo.gl/hCxi9K
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I couldn’t get enough Orel Hershiser news. When Sports Illustrated named him its “Sportsman of the Year,” I read and reread the article. Although the show aired past my bedtime, I heard stories of how Hershiser sang hymns on The Tonight Show (because that’s what he had done in the dugout). The press swooned, and I, since I had been loyally following the team all season, felt a bit of ownership in the process. The Washington Post’s esteemed Thomas Boswell wrote: “For this brief time when he can do no wrong, he has given us a glimpse of human perfectibility.” I agreed, although I had no context by which to realize just how anomalous Hershiser’s season had been.

Orel Hershiser’s 1988 season ended with, of course, the Cy Young Award. Hershiser led the league in wins (23), innings (267), complete games (15), and shutouts (8). And he won a Gold Glove. Following the season, he released an autobiography, Out of the Blue. Ever wonder who reads these slap ’em together autobiographies that attempt to capitalize on a quick rise to fame? It’s 12-year-old fans. I loved that book.

Jim Murray, whom I had come to appreciate on early summer mornings reading the LA Times with my grandfather, summed it up best. “Orel Hershiser for President!” he wrote following the Dodgers’ win. “Orel, who has had a season that’s right out of Frank Merriwell, won it like Bill Graham.” Yes he did. And for what he did that summer of 1988, for what he gave me and my grandfather, Orel Hershiser remains my favorite.  

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