"The Indians landed reliever Jesse Orosco, who's widely perceived to be over-the-hill."
—SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Dec. 19, 1988
Jesse Orosco has just run over a cat. We don't know the feline's name or where it lived, but it was light brown with a white tail. Please, do not call PETA. The mishap has occurred at night on winding and poorly lit Stone Canyon Road in Poway, Calif. Orosco was cruising in his black Humvee, well below the 35-mph speed limit, when Bootsie or Frisky or whatever dashed from under a bush and—ba-dump—into the path of the left front tire of Orosco's vehicle and.... "Oh, no!" cries Orosco. � "Oooooh nooooooo!" He gently taps the brake, a look of despair on his face. The man has spent 23 seasons in a test of nerves, pitching to the biggest, baddest hitters baseball has had to offer. He has saved 142 games and won 85 more, and twice he has been a member of a world champion. Yet he is suddenly rattled.
"Man," he says, "I've never, ever, ever killed a cat before."
With this, Orosco, his face now the color of snow, continues on up the hill. Several times, he sighs deeply. "I just can't...." he says, failing to finish the thought.
A lefthanded reliever who turns 46 on April 21, Orosco knows as well as any ballplayer how quickly life in the majors can be snatched away. And, much like the cat, Orosco, the alltime leader in games pitched (1,187), is heading into the ninth—and presumably the last—of his baseball lives. He began his career in 1978 as a minor leaguer in the Minnesota Twins organization (1) and then played in the majors with the Mets (2), Los Angeles Dodgers (3), Cleveland Indians (4), Milwaukee Brewers (5), Baltimore Orioles (6), St. Louis Cardinals (7), and the Dodgers again (8) before signing on Nov. 20 with the San Diego Padres (9).
With the retirement of 43-year-old outfielder Tim Raines and with outfielder Rickey Henderson, 44, and righthander Mike Morgan, 43, still unsigned, Orosco is the only active major leaguer to have played in the 1970s, '80s, '90s and 2000s. When general manager Kevin Towers signed Orosco to a one-year, $800,000 contract to be the Padres' lefthanded relief specialist, he not only acquired a player nearly five years his senior but also reunited old batterymates—Orosco and manager Bruce Bochy, who caught the lefty with Triple A Tidewater in 1979 and '81. "Some guys play themselves out of the league with bad attitudes, and some guys lose their edge or skills," says Davey Johnson, Orosco's manager with the Mets and the Orioles. "Jesse has that unique, God-gifted ability to play for a looooong time."
Why so? Johnson pauses knowingly. "Well," he says, "have you seen his left arm?"
While Orosco's body is sort of pear-shaped, despite five weightlifting sessions a week, that left arm is a beauty; tan from the California sun, with short, light hairs, a couple of freckles here and there, and nary a tattoo. Orosco would be wise to consider arm modeling as a postbaseball profession. In throwing 1,126? innings Orosco has had only one arm injury: a torn flexor muscle in April 2000 that caused him to miss most of the season. "He has an arm made out of rubber," says Dodgers closer Eric Gagne. "It's a rare gift, and he's got it." From 1982 through '99 Orosco averaged 62.5 appearances per season, but his longevity can be attributed in part to the fact that he has averaged less than one inning per outing every season since '91.
If there has ever been an ideal period in baseball for a prehistoric lefthanded relief pitcher, it's now, when complete games are at an alltime low and specialization is the bullpen buzzword. But upon hearing that San Diego had signed Orosco, some rival G.M.'s greeted the move with skepticism. Why would a young, rebuilding team sign an ancient pitcher? Answer: The Padres play in the NL West, which is loaded with five of the game's most dangerous lefthanded power hitters: the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds, the Dodgers' Shawn Green, the Colorado Rockies' Todd Helton and Larry Walker, and the Arizona Diamondbacks' Luis Gonzalez. "Baseball's changed a lot from back when Jesse was coming up," says Towers. "Nowadays, we all want—need—that one guy who can get a dangerous lefthanded hitter out late in the game. I don't care if he's 46 years old. That's what Jesse does."
Last year for Los Angeles, Orosco led the majors with 26 one-batter appearances—22 of them against lefthanded hitters—and got the out 20 times; overall, lefthanders batted .238 against him. Bonds is 4 for 25 lifetime facing Orosco, Green is 2 for 11 and the Philadelphia Phillies' Jim Thome is 0 for 13. The Orosco fastball that once traveled 91 to 93 mph now hovers between 86 and 88. But like most survivors, he has learned to adjust. When his velocity dropped off, he depended more on his slider, and when his slider began to flatten, he picked up a split-finger changeup that has become his out pitch.