SI Vault
Steve Wulf
December 19, 1988
In shattering one of baseball's most imposing records and then pitching the Dodgers to victory in the World Series, Orel Hershiser IV drew on a boyhood spent excelling in sports and a devotion to the fundamental values
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December 19, 1988

Deep Roots

In shattering one of baseball's most imposing records and then pitching the Dodgers to victory in the World Series, Orel Hershiser IV drew on a boyhood spent excelling in sports and a devotion to the fundamental values

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Part of the reason the kids were, and are, so active in sports is that Orel III's printing business kept the family on the go, from Buffalo to Detroit to Toronto to Cherry Hill and back to Detroit, and sports were always good entrees into new communities.

In addition to the baseball clips, Orel IV's scrapbooks contain a number of hockey stories. In the photos, with his black-rimmed glasses on, he looks like one of the manic Hanson Brothers in the movie Slap Shot. Orel took up hockey in Toronto, and he was a good enough defenseman to play for the Philadelphia Flyers' Junior A hockey team. When it came time for college, he chose Bowling Green, which had good programs in both baseball and hockey. But the baseball coach discouraged him from playing hockey, and Bowling Green was discouraging in other ways, too. Hershiser had trouble with academics as a freshman, and when he failed to make the baseball team's traveling squad that year, he went AWOL for two days, visited some old high school friends in Cherry Hill and finally hitchhiked back to school.

With his personal crisis behind him, Hershiser started cracking the books—he was a selling and sales marketing major—and made dean's list. In his sophomore year he also grew three inches, added about five miles an hour to his fastball and was finally good enough to crack the Falcons' traveling squad. A part-time bird dog for the Dodgers, Mike Trbovich, recomnended Hershiser to full-time scout Boyd Bartley, and after Hershiser's junior year, during which he went 6-2, the Dodgers drafted him in the 17th round. Before Hershiser got the news about Los Angeles, his Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity buddies faked a call from the San Diego Padres telling him he was their No. 1 draft pick. Hershiser was only momentarily crushed when he found out it was a prank.

He did pretty well in his first minor league season, going 4-0 for Class A Clinton, Iowa. There's a clip in his scrapbook telling of the day that he and Butch Wickensheimer pitched and won both ends of a doubleheader. "Wickensheimer and Hershiser," he recalls. "A doubleheader won by a law firm." Wickensheimer and Hershiser teamed up in another way, for it was Butch who helped Orel find Christ. Says Hershiser, "At first, I thought, 'How can I be a Christian? I'm not straight enough." I liked to have fun, I liked to be giddy. But in reading the Bible, I discovered that there was no contradiction there. You don't have to be boring to be a Christian. If anything, I felt freer after I found Christ, freer to express my emotions, freer to open up to people."

As for his pitching, well, if the Dodgers thought of him at all, they thought of him as a reliever. In his first year with Double A San Antonio, 1980. he started only three of 49 games, and he relieved with only mixed success. But he also met Jamie Byars that year at a team party—her father worked for the oil company that owned the club—and six weeks after they met, they became engaged. That next February they were married. The scrapbooks include a revealing clip from The San Antonio Light early the next season:

Orel Hershiser made everyone at the ballpark hold their collective breath last season when he entered the game as a relief pitcher.... Fans never knew if he would serve the pitch that would be hit for the game-winner or the one that would retire the side.

This season, Hershiser is in love with his new bride and he's confounding the opposition with regularity. Hershiser...admitted there is a correlation between the two.

Although the marriage remained strong, Hershiser's pitching went south of the border shortly after that article appeared. At one point he was leading the Texas League in saves and had a 0.51 earned run average, but then he gave up 20 runs in seven innings on a road trip and saw his ERA balloon to 4.72. In one of those games he gave up eight earned runs in 3⅔ innings at El Paso. "That was the lowest point of my career," he says. "I wanted to quit."

Charlie Strasser, now a Dodger trainer but then the San Antonio trainer, remembers the occasion well: "We were at the Ramada Inn in El Paso, and I answered a knock on my door. It was Orel, and he was almost in tears. He said he was going to quit. So I called the manager. Ducky LeJohn, and the pitching coach, Gary Wheelock, and they came over, and together, we talked him out of it."

Says Hershiser, "They told me I could be a major league pitcher, but I think they were just trying to be polite."

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