Orel : The Dodgers’ Wholesome Right-Hander Plots His Financial Future and Wonders If He Can Live Up to Last Season’s Success
SCENES FROM A winter almost as incredible as the baseball season that preceded it:
Orel Hershiser and his wife, Jamie, are in a toy store near their Pasadena home, looking for Christmas gifts for their two sons. It’s late in the evening, and they assume that they can shop undisturbed. They assume wrong.
“By the time we got to the end of the first aisle, people were buying baseball toys in the store and quickly running back to me for autographs,” Orel Hershiser says. “I just walked through quickly and didn’t even stop. We just looked to see what was available, went to see the store manager and said, ‘When’s your least-busy time?’ She said Tuesday at 10 a.m. So that’s when we went back.”
Orel Hershiser goes to a Kings’ hockey game at the Forum. Six yellow-jacketed security guards follow his every move. Orel Hershiser goes to a Michael Jackson concert at the Sports Arena. Ten minutes before it is to begin, a security guard approaches and says that if the impromptu autograph session causing a commotion around Hershiser doesn’t stop, Hershiser will have to go backstage to watch the show. Hershiser goes to a Clippers basketball game and ends up on the 11 o’clock news. “I only went to one game, but I think they kept using that film clip about six or seven times,” he says.
Orel Hershiser changes his home telephone number twice but finally gives up and hires an answering service. He decided to do that, he says, on “the day Jamie went out shopping, came home and the message thing on the recorder said, ’40.’ She had been gone about three hours.”
Orel Hershiser attends a state dinner at the White House and shares a table with the guest of honor, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and then-President Ronald Reagan. Orel Hershiser appears on “The Tonight Show,” where he sings hymns at the request of Johnny Carson. Orel Hershiser takes his 4-year-old son, Orel Leonard Hershiser V, called Quinton, to Disneyland, where security guards with walkie-talkies plot their every move. (“They’re about done with Dumbo now, will be at Space Mountain in seven minutes. Roger.”)
Orel Hershiser’s friends from high school and college call him. They say the supermarket tabloids have been pumping them for information. “They have been out trying to find dirt on me,” Orel Hershiser says. “I tell my friends, ‘Tell them the truth, I’ve got nothing to hide.’ ”
Orel Hershiser escapes to the Monterey Peninsula for a few days to relax and play golf. One night, he and Jamie decide to catch a late showing of “Rain Man.” “We come out of the show, it’s like 12:30 at night, and there’s a TV camera about 25 feet away,” Hershiser says. “I turn to Jamie and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be a crackup if this guy is here to interview me?’ Twelve-thirty at night. How do they know I’m at the movies? We get about 5 feet from the guy and he says, ‘Mr. Hershiser, we heard you were here at the movies. Can we interview you?’
“It was hilarious but very scary. That’s the main reason I said no: I was scared. We were, like, startled. The whole way home we laughed and said, ‘Things have changed.’ ”
FOR OREL LEONARD Hershiser IV, the 30-year-old Dodger pitcher who signed his first professional baseball contract as a 17th-round draft choice 10 years ago, life has taken a turn as sharp and abrupt as the sinker ball he uses to confound opposing batters. The transformation began last August when he embarked on perhaps the most amazing two-month run in baseball history: a record-breaking 59-inning scoreless streak, a win and a save in the National League playoffs, two wins in the World Series and all the awards commensurate with such a stunning performance: unanimous winner of the Cy Young Award as the National League’s top pitcher, with a record of 23 wins, 8 losses and a 2.26 earned run average; Most Valuable Player Award in the league playoffs; Most Valuable Player Award in the World Series; Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year; Sporting News Player of the Year; Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, and an All-Star selection by every publication that chooses a postseason team.
Then, on Feb. 16, Hershiser agreed to a three-year, $7.9-million contract with the Dodgers. The contract breaks down like this: a $1.1-million signing bonus and yearly salaries of $2.4 million in 1989, $1.6 million in 1990 and $2.8 million in 1991. It makes him the highest-paid player in baseball history. Based on his performance last season, Hershiser can reasonably be expected to earn $81,382 each time he starts for the Dodgers this season. Each strikeout he records will be worth $15,534, each inning $10,363.
How does all of this make Orel Hershiser feel?
Like a marked man.
“I’m set up for the biggest fall of my life,” he says as he dresses in front of his locker in the Dodgers’ clubhouse in Vero Beach, Fla., home of the team’s spring-training facilities. He has just pitched three innings in his first exhibition appearance of the spring. Quinton is sitting on a folding chair facing Hershiser’s locker. He tells his father he wants to leave. Hershiser gently suggests that his son turn around and look at the 33 reporters assembled to interview the pitcher.
Outfielder Mickey Hatcher walks into the clubhouse, takes one look at the crowd around Hershiser’s cubicle and blurts out an expletive. A moment later, catcher Mike Scioscia enters and responds in identical fashion. “How many guys would be in here,” Hatcher asks, “if you’d pitched the whole game?”
Hershiser handles his questioners this day, as he has done his entire career, with equanimity, engaging them in an easy give-and-take laced with humor. He is aware, however, that these interrogators are primed to become his sharpest critics if he doesn’t match the inflated expectations of a public dazzled by his past performance and awed by, resentful of or perhaps jealous of his new contract.
“If I don’t win 20 games,” he says, citing the traditional benchmark for an outstanding season, “I’ll be considered a failure.”
But a safety net is in place to catch Hershiser in case he falls--a net woven of strong family ties, deep religious convictions and a self-deprecating sense of humor with which he regularly punctures his own ego.
And, of course, there is the money.
ON THE MORNING of March 1, Billy DeLury, the Dodgers’ longtime traveling secretary, walks into the team’s major-league clubhouse in Vero Beach handing out paychecks. Hershiser receives two. One covers his signing bonus. The other is retroactive pay for two months at his 1989 salary. One check, after taxes, is for $843,198.10. The other, $250,800. Total haul for the day: $1,093,998.10.
“Oh my gosh,” Hershiser says, giggling as he recalls the moment. “That is unheard of. I almost started laughing. I almost started crying, and since I was among the players, some of the younger ones came over to see. Chris Gwynn, Mike Devereaux. Rick Dempsey, he comes over, too.”
Hershiser puts the checks on top of his locker. When the day is over, he hands them to Jamie and asks her to deposit them. “It was like, ‘ Hi, honey, I’m home, ' " Hershiser says. He is still giggling.
Hershiser spent the winter signing endorsement contracts. Pepsi, Mitsubishi cars, Toshiba copiers and office equipment, Ebel watches, baby shampoo, athletic shoes, baseball gloves, BVD underwear. (He will pose in a baseball uniform, not do a beefcake poster, a la ex-Baltimore Oriole Jim Palmer, because, he jokes, he has a body like “a flour factory.”) In all, Hershiser says, he will earn more from endorsements in 1989 than the $1.1 million he made playing baseball in 1988.
“The money has secured our life style for the rest of our lives,” Hershiser says. It’s a dramatic departure from his minor-league days in San Antonio, when he took Jamie to a coffee shop for a hamburger on their first date and, after they married in 1981, both worked at banks. “So many things have happened in our lives that have changed us, but the money hasn’t changed us. We haven’t run out for Lamborghinis or a house in Beverly Hills. So the only thing that really has changed is our investments.”
In 1979, after he got his $10,000 signing bonus from the Dodgers, Hershiser invested it in the stock market, and within three years, he says, it had doubled in value. His plans for his latest windfall are more ambitious; he would like, he says, to have investments with an annual yield of $300,000 after he retires from baseball.
His avid interest in finance--he was a business major at Bowling Green State University--stems from his father, Orel Leonard Hershiser III, who made enough money with his Detroit-based business printing newspaper inserts to retire before he turned 50. In 1986, when his son became a millionaire for the first time after being awarded a raise of $788,000 in an arbitration hearing, a man approached Orel Hershiser III on a Vero Beach golf course. “So,” the man said, “what’s it like to have a son making more money than you?”
Orel III didn’t miss a beat. “He’s not there yet,” he said.
The younger Hershiser’s affairs are handled by his agent, lawyer Robert Fraley, who has negotiated the contracts that have increased the pitcher’s salary from $36,000 in 1983 to $2.4 million this year. Fraley’s 2 1/2-year-old marketing organization, Leader Enterprises Inc., handles Hershiser’s business affairs, along with those of several other professional football and baseball figures. Hershiser says he is in almost daily contact with Fraley’s office in Orlando, Fla. On Fraley’s advice, Hershiser has turned down many business opportunities, including investments in golf courses, restaurants and radio stations. He prefers to put his money in commercial real estate, certificates of deposit, treasury bills and bonds.
Hershiser also has set up a private foundation to administer his charitable donations, which are considerable, although he won’t reveal the beneficiaries; he will say that he and Jamie contribute to their church, Lake Avenue Congregational in Pasadena. He is a spokesman for 65 Roses, a charity for victims of cystic fibrosis, and Five Acres, an Altadena home for abused children. “I want to be in a position,” he says, “where I can contribute to the community, and not just with money.”
Hershiser, who has lived in the Linda Vista neighborhood near the Rose Bowl for less than two years, has bought property in the Orlando, Fla., area and intends to build a house there. He also recently purchased a beach house on John Island off the Florida coast and is planning to change his legal residence to Florida, which levies no state income tax. By doing so, he estimates that he would save $400,000 in the next three years. (However, California’s 11% income tax would still apply to the pay he receives for games played in this state.) But he says that he hasn’t definitely decided to move and that the Pasadena house, which he paid off last year, isn’t on the market. Financial considerations aren’t the main reason for contemplating a move, he says. “I would be closer to my parents and grandmother. I like Orlando; we could get a bigger home. It’s also closer to my agent, which might be important to me in terms of post-career opportunities.”
DURING THE WINTER, when Hershiser wanted to replay his memories of last season, he found that the best time was in the middle of the night, when he’d rise to feed his 7-month-old son, Jordan. “That’s when I’d drop in one of the highlight tapes, sit down and watch it while I was feeding him,” Hershiser says. “That’s when I started to realize what had happened.”
The tapes record some of the most gripping moments in Dodger history, not all of them moments of glory. Sometimes Hershiser would replay the crushing defeat to the Mets in the first game of the playoffs, a loss that he blames on himself. In the ninth inning, after he had shut out the Mets for eight innings, he hung a curve ball to Darryl Strawberry, who doubled; the Dodgers then brought in reliever Jay Howell. Gary Carter’s bloop hit off Howell was the game-losing blow, but Hershiser says the pitch to Strawberry was the low point of the season for him.
Then the high points: Hershiser’s dramatic save in Game 4, coming back on three days’ rest to shut out the Mets in Game 7, another shutout of the Oakland Athletics in Game 2 of the World Series, and finally, the series-clinching win against the A’s in Game 5.
During Game 4 with the Mets, Orel Hershiser III was in the visitors’ clubhouse in New York’s Shea Stadium. It was so cold, he was wearing a Mets’ sweat shirt under his raincoat when his son came running in from the dugout to put on his spikes. He had pitched only the day before.
“I said to him, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Orel III says.
“He said, ‘I’m going to the bullpen.’ I said, ‘You’re going where? ' You’ve got to remember, Orel’s pitched more innings in the last two seasons than any pitcher in the National League. You have to be conscious of how much he pitches.”
Even though Hershiser has avoided major arm problems throughout his career, it’s an ever-present concern for his father. Orel III’s other baseball-playing son, Gordie, who at 26 is still pitching at the lower minor-league level, has had two elbow operations and has decided that this spring will be his deadline for determining whether he has a chance at the big leagues.
Orel III isn’t alone in his concern. Mildred Hershiser was watching on TV in Los Angeles that night when her son took the mound in the bottom of the 12th inning, the bases loaded with Mets, the dangerous Kevin McReynolds at the plate, the Dodgers one out from a 5-4 win that would tie the best-of-seven playoffs at two games each. “I lost it,” she says. “I started crying, ‘It’s not fair, it’s not fair. His arm is going to fall off.’ ”
Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia, who had been replaced earlier in the game by a pinch-hitter, now watched with mixed emotions as Hershiser emerged from the bullpen. “I didn’t want a guy who had thrown eight innings the day before going out and wrecking his career,” Scioscia says. “But Orel’s been blessed with a rubber arm, and he loves to pitch.”
In some ways, Hershiser seems oblivious to the possibility of hurting his arm. During the season, he is constantly volunteering to pitch out of turn. And that’s exactly what he did that night against the Mets, figuring that his services might be needed after ace reliever Jay Howell had been suspended by the National League for having pine tar in his glove the day before. “I hadn’t realized what I had done or what I had gotten myself into probably until I was in the bullpen fully warmed up,” Hershiser says. “You start to feel like Laurel and Hardy--'a fine mess you’ve got us in now.’
“But I live to compete; I love to compete, and when I got over my initial reaction, I was fine. When I left the bullpen and got halfway to the mound, the fans started their chant-- O-O-O-O-O-rel, O-O-O-O-O-rel. I started to get worked up with the beat.”
And by the time he reached the mound, Hershiser says, he knew exactly what he was going to do. “I told Demper (catcher Rick Dempsey): ‘Let’s go after him (McReynolds); there’s no place to put him,’ ” Hershiser says. “Bases loaded, this was MVP stuff, here we go.
“I wasn’t going to bounce a curve ball and let them score. I wasn’t going to get beat on a change-up. I was here to throw as hard as I could. So I threw him three fastballs; the third one got in on him a little, and he popped it up to center. That was it: Just roll the dice.”
Except for Kirk Gibson’s game-winning home run in Game 1 of the World Series, no image from the past season will probably last longer than that of Hershiser dropping to his knees after eliminating the Mets in the seventh game.
“It was such a spiritual moment,” Hershiser says. “On the batter before, Lee Mazzilli, I got rid of my game face and listened to the crescendo of the crowd build. I said, ‘I’m going to think about what is going on here, and I looked around at everything, the fans, Tommy (Lasorda) in the dugout. I just let the noise get louder and louder.”
He also let Mazzilli get on base by hitting him with a pitch with the count no balls and two strikes. The next batter was Howard Johnson, and a refocused Hershiser struck him out, then sank to his knees.
“It was like, ‘Can you believe it?’ ” Hershiser says. “You just drop, you just drop from emotion. It was, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to happen.’ And as soon as I got to my knees, I thanked God. Then I stood up in time before I was knocked over. I saw Scioscia coming, about three steps away. He’d have rolled me over.”
To those who watched him, Hershiser had experienced the roll of a lifetime. Except he never thought of it that way. “Everyone told me that I was (on a roll) and (they were) telling me it would end; you can’t continue this. I said, ‘Why? Because you can only throw one pitch at a time, and I can comprehend throwing a fastball for a strike and a curve ball in the dirt, so if I can comprehend that, why can’t it go on?’
“I never really looked at it as, oh, no, another nine innings against the Mets or oh, no, they scored some runs off me. It wasn’t scary, because I knew how to re-create this. The scariest thing on the mound is when you’re getting people out and you have no idea why, because you have nothing to base (the choice of pitches) on, how to continue. But now I have learned my body and my mechanics, and I learned how to pitch.
“I’m human and I have to execute; my teammates are human and they have to execute, get the ground balls and get the outs. But at least as you learn your task as a professional, you start to eliminate mistakes and narrow to the point where you can succeed more often.”
FOR THOSE WHO WONDER if Hershiser can possibly duplicate his pitching feats of 1988, he has a ready answer: Of course not. Last season is over; for him, Hershiser says, it ended on the first day he pitched in spring training. He is well aware of the mine field that now lies before him; he knows that his fame may be fleeting even if his wealth is enduring. A losing record this season and Carson won’t be inviting him on for sing-alongs; he’ll be zinging him in monologues. And being known as the richest player in baseball won’t help.
“The only way I can avoid criticism for that is if I have another unbelievable year,” Hershiser says. “If I have an average year, or if I win 20 games and lose 12, people will say, ‘Oh, you’re supposed to win the one-run games when you get paid that much money.’ But all I can do is just be the same person. Just because I went to the World Series and had a streak doesn’t mean that I became a different person. You’re just the same.”
For an example of fame’s volatility, Hershiser suggests a look at his teammate, Fernando Valenzuela, whose arrival in Los Angeles eight years ago created the phenomenon of “Fernandomania,” but whose recent arm problems have made him just another starting pitcher.
“Now when Fernando walks to the field out there, nobody bothers him. Maybe two or three kids,” Hershiser says with a hint of envy as he gestures outside the clubhouse, where dozens of tourists clamor for autographs.
When Hershiser leaves after a day’s work at Vero Beach, he doesn’t go out the clubhouse door and toward the waiting throng. Instead, he cuts through the laundry room, where the day’s uniforms are being loaded into huge washers, and out a back entrance, where he has parked his van. “I don’t have a choice,” he says. Otherwise he’ll be deluged.
But how can the ride possibly last for a man burdened with not only added celebrity and a notoriously high salary--which already inspired one columnist to sneer during negotiations that the “root of all Orel is money"--but also a clean-living image seemingly ripe to be blown apart in the age of Margo Adams? After all, if Steve Garvey can fall from grace, can Hershiser be far behind?
“It’s a big responsibility to be a so-called hero,” says Orel III. “The public builds somebody up so quickly, then suddenly it’s gone. Talk about a bulldozer piling up sand and somebody sitting on top. Boy, look out. There are so many ways Orel could get hurt. The amount of money (the Dodgers) paid him, if he doesn’t do well--all it will take is one misstep.”
But he says his son has an inner strength, camouflaged by that pasty complexion, accountant’s physique and sensitive nature. “He’s not so sensitive after he walks across the line--I don’t care what game it is,” says Orel III, a former semipro hockey player. “Orel was a hockey player, too, a defenseman, and he wore glasses. Now picture a kid with a helmet on, with glasses on underneath, and being a string bean, and put 4 inches of skates under his 6-foot, 3 1/2-inch body. He was a real gangler out there.”
And an inviting target to brawnier players eager to squash young Hershiser against the boards. “They’d take a run at him once or twice,” Orel III remembers, “until they found out that, ‘Hey, this wasn’t going to be easy.’ ”
Hershiser was able to cope with his success last season, his father says, because he remembers humbler days--being cut from his high school team, being left off the traveling squad in college, the despair he sometimes felt in the minor leagues. At one point, while playing in San Antonio, he almost quit after a three-week stretch during which he couldn’t seem to get one batter out. Hershiser says he thought at the time: “If I can’t get anybody out here, how can I get anybody out in the big leagues?” He also remembers what it was like to win 19 games and lose only three in 1985, then win only as many games as he lost in each of the next two seasons for mediocre Dodger ballclubs. Seeing the flip side of success may help him weather any hard times in 1989.
Hershiser admits that he was apprehensive when he took part in the Dodgers’ annual public winter workout at Dodger Stadium in February. Contract talks were at an impasse then, and Hershiser’s agent, Fraley, had made it clear that the pitcher was willing to go to arbitration and seek free-agent status the following season, leaving the Dodgers behind.
It was a relief, Hershiser says, when he received a standing ovation. “People will boo you for negotiating a contract too hard or having an argument with your manager,” he says, “but then if you hit a home run to win the game, they give you a standing ovation. You kind of live in an odd world, not a true or real world.”
And if it all goes south on him, Hershiser says, he has his religious beliefs--a faith he discovered in his first year in pro ball from a teammate--and his family to fall back on. The two things are not unrelated: Mildred Hershiser says the Hershiser clan--Orel has a younger sister, Katy, and brothers Judd and Gordie--has been transformed by her oldest son’s faith. “The thing he’s taught all of us in the family is that we can be more demonstrative about our love. We’ve always been a close family but now we find it a lot easier to say, ‘I love you.’ ”
“I know the word Christian is overused now,” Hershiser says. “A lot of people have a hard time understanding where you’re coming from, what you’re trying to portray. I sin just like everybody else; I’m just as dirty and scuzzy inside, but God is working on me. Maybe people will understand that I’m trying to be the same. I’m just trying to be consistent with people.”
Part of that consistency is turning down beer and cigarette commercials because they don’t fit his image. “I’m not saying I’m squeaky-clean, because I’m not,” Hershiser says. “There are things I wouldn’t like to see printed about me; there are things I am not proud of. But I think there are things everybody wants to keep in the closet.” He repeats: “I just try to be consistent with people.”
He also tries to retain some semblance of normalcy in his life. When his golden retriever, Sinker, became ill during the playoffs last October, Hershiser took him to the veterinarian. When Quinton takes some bubble gum into the clubhouse and scatters the wrappers, Hershiser admonishes him to pick them up. And if there is any jealousy in the Dodger clubhouse, so far it has remained hidden.
“If there’s one guy who can handle all this, it’s Orel,” Mickey Hatcher says. “He’s got himself under control. He knows what he has to do. If there’s any person on this team who has pressure, it’s him, because every time he goes out and pitches, he’s in the limelight.
“But Orel has always been one to come into spring training and work hard. Things are a little different for him this spring because of all the outside stuff he has to deal with, but he still goes about business. He talks to me about what it will take to win again, and I like that. He’s not talking about last year; he’s talking about what he’s going to do this year.”
But even if no one expects a reprise of 1988, the Dodgers obviously expect Hershiser to remain dominant. Catcher Rick Dempsey says that if any pitcher is capable of becoming the first to win 30 games in a season since Denny McLain in 1968, it is Hershiser, because of the great command he has of all five of his pitches. Mike Scioscia praises Hershiser’s consistency, broadcaster Don Drysdale his “aptitude.”
Dave Wallace, the Dodgers’ minor-league pitching instructor, has worked closely with Hershiser since 1982, when the two were in the Dominican Republic for winter baseball. “What sets him apart,” Wallace says, “is his intelligence. He comes out knowing what he wants to do and makes the adjustments he has to make and makes them quicker than anybody I’ve ever seen. He’ll adjust from pitch to pitch. It takes some pitchers an inning or two to figure out what they’re doing wrong.
“For example, every pitcher’s arm drops, but they don’t know what to do about it. But with Orel, a bell clicks, and he knows exactly what he’s done wrong. He’s really broken his pitching down--his mechanics, opposing hitters. He watches and studies and he just has a feeling for pitching. His baseball instinct is just extraordinary. Some guys throw for the sake of throwing. He has a plan.”
But given the pressure Hershiser will face every time he pitches this season--and the uncertainty about how strong the Dodgers will be collectively in 1989--there’s no predicting how he will perform.
“I’ll tell you what,” Wallace says, “I’m concerned about it; I really am. I think we’re all concerned about it. If anyone can handle it, though, he’s one of the guys who can. He seems to have everything in perspective.”
Hershiser’s perspective on last season goes like this: “You couldn’t ask for all those things to happen in a career,” he says. “If all those things that happened in two months had happened in a career, you would have said, ‘Wow, what a career!’ But it happened to us in two months. You almost want to put it in slow motion.
“I can comprehend getting an out or throwing a shutout, but to do all that in two months. . . . If somebody had said I’d do that, I’d say no way. You’re going to have a bad outing or a twinge in your arm. But it didn’t work out that way. It all went the other way.”
If 1988 was a time to be savored, it was also a time on which to capitalize. Hershiser reveals an understanding of both aspects when he recounts the story of the Oakland fan who leaned over and hollered at him as he walked down a runway to the clubhouse after winning the World Series.
“You were lucky, Hershiser!” the kid, wearing an A’s jacket, bellowed.
Hershiser whirled around and fixed his eyes on the fan. “Grab a bat, kid,” Hershiser said.
“When I knew I had him, then I smiled at him,” Hershiser says. “That would make a great Pepsi commercial, wouldn’t it?”