Early in his career Orosco thrived as the Mets' closer, twice earning All-Star Game invitations. When he was traded to L.A. in 1988, manager Tommy Lasorda turned him into a setup man. By the time Orosco reached Baltimore in '95, he was almost exclusively a one-batter lefty. "The reason I'm still around is because I feel the same way I did when I was in Little League, greasing up the mitt before the season," he says. "I'm excited for spring training. I love batting practice. The games are thrilling, even if I'm sitting in the bullpen. I'm the little boy who loves baseball. I don't care what my job is."
Several years ago, when it became clear that he could pitch beyond the normal span of a major league career, Orosco and his agent, Alan Meersand, worked out a plan. Instead of demanding outrageous wads of money and scaring teams off, Meersand and Orosco asked for more modest salaries. "The most Jesse has ever made in a season is around $1.6 million, and that was in the '80s," says Meersand. "We never wanted to price him out of the game, where teams would shy away. Jesse's always just wanted a place to play and a comfortable life for his family."
Orosco says he will play one or two more seasons ("I want to retire with dignity," he says), but his brown eyes twinkle with intrigue when the possibility of pitching at age 50 is suggested. There are those among his inner circle who believe that Orosco could—in fact, should—join 58-year-old Satchel Paige of the 1965 Kansas City A's and 50-year-old Jack Quinn of the '33 Cincinnati Reds as the only pitchers whose careers survived beyond their 50th birthdays. "His arm will never die," says Gagne. "I mean it. Never."
Leticia Orosco, who married Jesse 18 years ago and has spent most of her summer nights without him, says, "If Jesse quits before his heart tells him to, I'd be very sad. How many of us live our dream?" She and the couple's three children—Jesse Jr., 15; Natalie, 10; and Alyssa, 8—live year-round in Poway, so they are glad that his new team's ballpark, Qualcomm Stadium, is only a 15-minute drive from home.
As he stands for the national anthem before every game, Orosco thinks about the man he grew up idolizing—his father, Raymond, who died 21 years ago. In the early 1960s, when Jesse was first learning to love baseball, his father was the owner-manager-ace of the Santa Barbara Jets, one of the top semipro teams in Southern California. During the week Raymond was a construction foreman; on weekends he was the Don Drysdale of the sandlot. Jesse liked nothing more than serving as the Jets' batboy, toting Raymond's equipment and mimicking his dad's moves on the mound.
In the summer after his freshman year at Santa Barbara City College, Jesse worked for his dad in construction. The days were long and arduous, and one night the son told the father that he'd rather do anything than spend his afternoons aligning bricks. Raymond, who years earlier had turned down a minor league contract from the Dodgers to stay home with his wife and family, told Jesse, "You have a chance to make it in baseball, but it's going to take more work than you've ever imagined. A lot of people play this game, and a lot fail. If you really want it, then you have to outwork everyone. Are you willing to do that?" The answer was yes.
After Orosco went 10-2 in his final season at Santa Barbara, the Twins selected him in the second round of the 1978 draft. A year later the Mets were peddling veteran lefthander Jerry Koosman and asked for the young Orosco in return. Minnesota owner Calvin Griffith's initial response was, "Who?" In eight seasons with New York, Orosco developed into something of a cult hero. Although his name might not roll off the tongue like Strawberry, Gooden or Hernandez, Orosco was on the hill when the '86 Mets won the dramatic National League Championship Series over the Houston Astros and the even more dramatic World Series against the Boston Red Sox. To the denizens of Shea Stadium, Bill Buckner's error does not symbolize New York's triumph nearly as much as the image of Orosco, throwing his glove in the air and then falling to his knees on the mound, arms raised triumphantly, celebrating the final out of the Fall Classic. "This is how senile fans think I am," says Orosco. "A couple have said to me, 'Do you remember when you got the final out of the 1986 World Series?' " He smirks. "Uh, no. I forgot. Was that me?"
Near the end of his stint in New York, Orosco was replaced as the closer by righthander Roger McDowell and lefthander Randy Myers, two youngsters with electric arms and brighter futures. Both relievers are long retired, as are most of the other pitchers ( Alejandro Pe�a, anyone?) who were signed as Orosco was phased out at each stop. Many wanted to learn the secret to his longevity, only to be frustrated in that quest. Yes, Orosco runs and lifts weights, but no more and no less than the average big leaguer. Yes, Orosco eats healthy meals, but he's been known to scarf down three slices and a couple of Budweisers.
Orosco holds up his blessed left arm. "I've worked hard my entire life to be a pitcher," he says, "but without this, I'm probably doing construction."
Nine lives? Why not 10?