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DEEP ROOTS
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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Hershiser straightened himself out after that, and the next year the Dodgers sent him to Triple A Albuquerque, where he showed enough that the Texas Rangers asked for him, pitchers Dave Stewart and Burt Hooton and outfielder Mark Bradley in a trade for catcher Jim Sundberg. The Dodgers were quite willing to part with that foursome, but Sundberg wanted his contract rewritten before he would agree to the deal, and L.A. refused. Had Sundberg agreed to go to Los Angeles, it's possible that Orel Hershiser of the world champion Texas Rangers would be our Sportsman of the Year.

In the spring of 1983, Hershiser won the Mulvey Award as the top L.A. rookie. He also won the Walter Alston pool tournament. (He plays just about every sport well.) Hershiser fully expected to make the club, but just before the plane left Vero Beach for Los Angeles, Lasorda called him into his office and told him that the club was sending him back to Albuquerque.

A little frustrated and impatient, Hershiser didn't exactly blow the Pacific Coast League away upon returning there. But in winter ball after the 1983 season, while performing for the Licey team in the Dominican Republic, he did very well working with a pitching coach named Dave Wallace. He also had a frightening moment in Santo Domingo. He and Jamie were living in a house in a nice section of town, and at a New Year's Eve party there, some of the players shot off fireworks. As it turned out, one of the rockets hit the house of a former general in the Dominican army, and the next day the general and two bodyguards carrying guns showed up at the Hershisers' temporary residence. Hershiser tried to reason with them, but the visitors, who didn't want to be reasoned with, hit him in the head with the rocket in question. Manny Mota, the Dominican who coaches for the Dodgers and managed Licey then, arrived just in time to prevent Hershiser's arrest. A compromise was reached. The police wanted to arrest someone, so Mota gave them the team trainer, who was none other than Hershiser's good friend Charlie Strasser. "Orel and I can laugh about it now," says Strasser, "but I don't recall it being too funny at the time."

Hershiser made it to Los Angeles in 1984 as a long reliever, but he was still a little unsure of himself. On one road trip, he pitched socks to Jamie, argyles low and away, in their hotel room. "One of the sacrifices I've made," says Jamie. His big break didn't come until May 26 of that year, when, because of an injury to Jerry Reuss, Hershiser started a nationally televised game in New York. He pitched well, and he joined the starting rotation for good on June 29. "I'd always thought of myself as a starter, anyway," he says. "I didn't have that one overpowering pitch to be a reliever, and starting gave me a little more chance to be creative." He was so creative, in fact, that beginning with his first start he had a scoreless-inning streak of 33⅔ innings. "The difference between that streak and the one this year is that I really didn't know what I was doing in '84," Hershiser says. "I was like that pitcher in Bull Durham when he throws a great pitch and says, 'God, that was beautiful. What'd I do?' "

But he was learning. He would sit with Lasorda and Perranoski, soaking up everything they knew about pitching and the hitters in the National League. Much has been made of Lasorda's hanging the tag "Bulldog" on Hershiser, theretofore known to the Dodgers as "the Senator." But Lasorda's real contribution to Hershiser's success was the knowledge he imparted. "Tommy taught me a lot about pitching." says Hershiser. "I didn't mind it if he second-guessed my pitch selection, because it was almost a Socratic method: "Why did you throw that?' I would learn things like, Don't throw off-speed to a lefthander with a man on first base because he wants to hit the ball to the right side anyway."

As for the name "Bulldog," Hershiser isn't overly fond of it. But he has accepted it, so go ahead and use it if you insist.

In 1985 Hershiser took a big step toward becoming a household name by going 19-3 with a 2.03 ERA. After the season, he took the Dodgers to arbitration and won $1 million a year. Hershiser and the Los Angeles front office have had a very interesting relationship over the years. After the '86 season, in which he was 14-14, he and the Dodgers were back at the arbitration table, and this time the team won, reducing his salary to $800,000. In '87 he went 16-16, a record that, given the Dodgers' shaky defense, belied his effectiveness, and this time he and the club agreed on a one-year, $1.1 million contract. Hershiser and the club are heading for their third arbitration in four years in February, and as Major League Players Association head Donald Fehr recently said. "We may be looking at $3 million a year here." That would make Hershiser the major leagues' highest-paid player.

If Hershiser gets the three mil, it will be a tribute to his thirst for pitching knowledge, for that's what distinguishes him from most of his comrades in arms. Yes, he has a tremendous sinker, an above-average fastball and an outstanding curve, but other pitchers have "stuff." However, very few of them have hard disks on the opposition. Hershiser can call up a computer file for almost every game he has pitched this year. (Sad to say. his scrapbooks have suffered from lack of attention, now that he has a PC.) Every at bat by every batter is recorded with shorthand notations that translate to something like. "Thomas [Andres Thomas of Atlanta]—First inning, lined out to short on a good curve ball—may be learning how to hit the curve." It's not as if Hershiser pores over the data before every game. "Just the fact that I'm entering the information is enough to keep it in my mind," he says.

Hershiser offers this analogy for his desire to learn: "It's like when you put your money in a savings bank that gives you 5¼-percent interest. Now, some people would be satisfied with that, and some pitchers are satisfied with just the scouting reports they get on a certain club. But I want to know where the bank that's giving me 5¼ percent is investing its money. When I learn that, then I want to know where the investors who are getting the bank's money are putting their money. And finally, I want to know what the really rich guys are investing in."

One of the pitchers richest in knowledge of his craft was Koufax, and he says, "The key to Orel's success is his constant striving for perfection. Perfectionists are usually given a bad rap, but there's nothing wrong with trying to be better than you are, the best that you can be. And Orel's going to have to get even better, not so much because the rest of the league will catch up to him, but because they're going to want to try that much harder to beat him. But he's a remarkable young man, and I think he'll get better."

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