It’s hard to gaze at the sun, or Orel Hershiser, for too long. Everybody is looking at him. But how many can see him through the blaze of his brilliance?
Every Dodger, of course, breaks his vocabulary to do justice to Hershiser in this Year of the Bulldog. Both his athleticism and competitiveness are praised to the nth degree. In just a few weeks, he has grown superhuman.
“There really is a Big Dodger in the Sky and I think he’s come down and taken over Hershiser’s body,” said Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda after Hershiser’s eighth no-run job in 10 starts.
“After the Series, the league above the major leagues will draft Orel No. 1,” said Mike Marshall after Hershiser blanked Oakland on three hits and got three himself in World Series Game 2. “Then he’ll be the top pitcher in the Ultra League.”
Rick Dempsey calls him “overpowering and devastating,” then recalls seeing Hershiser bet $5,000 on a single hand of baccarat in Atlantic City. “Win or lose, you can’t tell what he’s going to do, or how he feels about it. He’s kind of bookworm-looking. But he’s one of the toughest characters I’ve come across.”
Suddenly, he’s 007 Orel. A scratch golfer. A pool shark. Could have played pro hockey for the Flyers. Look how he’s hit and run the bases and fielded. Said Steve Sax, “Anything and everything.”
One Dodger says Hershiser seems “incapable of a bad game,” while another says, “He’s so capable of doing anything he pleases, it’s almost sickening.”
And Lasorda has renamed him again:
Orel Shutout Hershiser IV.
At the other extreme of necessary misperception, the A’s are in a state of denial, refusing to believe their eyes. They say nice things then add provisos. Manager Tony La Russa compared Hershiser to “several guys in our league whose ball moves like that.” Dave Parker said, “I haven’t seen anything real exceptional in this Series so far.” Come again? And Dave Henderson adds, “It isn’t like he blows you away. It isn’t like he has Roger Clemens stuff.”
While Mark McGwire was muttering, “He doesn’t intimidate you,” only Jose Canseco had the good grace to say, “It’s the first time in my career I’ve ever had a guy throw me only fastballs. And I still can’t believe I didn’t hit even one hard. If he can get away with that to me, he can do it to anybody. He definitely had me mumbling to myself.”
While the Dodgers see Hershiser’s 67 straight scoreless innings and first back-to-back postseason shutouts since Sandy Koufax in 1965, the A’s see a merely mortal foe.
Unfortunately, both these views miss the most moving part of what Hershiser has accomplished. For this brief time when he can do no wrong, he has given us a glimpse of human perfectibility.
This tall, gangly man with the innocent face, the elf ears and pointed nose, the pinched lips and narrowed gaze, has taken a 10-year pro career of no great distinction and raised it to the heavens of his game. By persistence and good fortune, he has reached a peak of performance which, even if it is temporary, never has been surpassed. Not by Christy Mathewson when he pitched three shutouts in one World Series. Not by Walter Johnson when he pitched 16 shutouts in one season.
Nobody has ever been better. Because you can’t be better than a 0.29 ERA over 97 2/3 innings.
Cut from his high school and college team, Hershiser reached the majors as a marginal reliever and never cracked a starting rotation until he was crowding 26. After one wonderful year (19-3 in 1985), he slipped right back to mediocrity, going 30-30 the next two seasons.
When Dwight Gooden or Roger Clemens goes 24-4, we know why. Each is sighted and tracked like a celestial object from the day he signs his first contract. When every game is a potential no-hitter, when 20 strikeouts is a sane possibility, the huge majority of mankind may feel awe, but not kinship.
Hershiser, however, is one of us. Not by some trick of facial appearance, but by the whole reality of a career where San Antonio was almost too tough and the escape from Albuquerque was a battle.
That Hershiser has handled his long and wearying hour upon the stage with such gentle grace brings dignity to us all. His split-second of prayer in victory seems guileless. His exhaustion running the bases is real. His grin when his parents get to throw out the two first balls is ripe for the photo album. He sees Kirk Gibson playing in agony and, like a kid, he races to the bullpen to warm up-anything to help the team-the day after he’s pitched. And then the day after that, too.
Could it cost him millions if he hurt his arm? Of course. Was it foolhardy courage? By baseball standards, sure. Pure pitching Russian roulette. And he’s still spinning the chambers, pitching every game on short rest and threatening to start Game 7 on just two days. But his example had such force that, by playoffs’ end, Gooden pitched in relief.
Hershiser has been that hardest combination -- a modest yet charismatic performer. “I was extremely tired. ... I was winded from running the bases so much. ... I wouldn’t say I threw superb,” he said after resting between innings with towels soaked in ammonia around his neck to revive him on a hot night.
While he has laughed about his hitting and joked about giving Lasorda gray hair by sliding while going first to third, Hershiser still throws his shoulders back just enough to make the massive A’s understand his intentions. He intends to take them all on and beat them -- a case of mind over mastodons.
Others lie and say they feel no pressure. Hershiser says, “These early leads my team’s gotten me (the last two starts) just put the monkey on my back. It’s my burden to carry. If I get more than three runs, I feel like I would let the team down if I lost.”
One moment, Hershiser is joking about being so excited by Gibson’s Game 1 homer that he forgot to take films of the game home so he could study the Athletics. But the next minute, he’s playing big-time mind games with the A’s, saying that “I really didn’t want to expose everything (tonight). You gotta have some repertoire left. ... Oakland won’t know what to look for in Game 5.”
Right now, Hershiser is a conundrum -- a phenomenon that should not exist.
“I have never seen anybody pitch like that and continue it. It is just unbelievable,” said Lasorda. “How’s he different (in recent weeks)? He’s more confident. He has more control. He has greater pitch selection and greater command of those pitches. And he gets it where he wants to get it every damn time. I can’t believe a pitcher can be this good.”
Orel Hershiser is never going to be this good again. Nobody else has been, so why would he? And he probably knows it. That’s why his dignity, modesty and unselfishness in handling this blessing has been a sort of gift to everyone, not just fans of the Dodgers. It’s enough to make anyone root for a fifth game, just to see him one more time.