Bulldog Lost Ace, Won Battle

Anyone can win a poker pot with four aces. Anyone can win an English spelling bee in Rangoon.

And anyone can win a Cy Young Award and set a shutout record when you have a sinking fastball that comes in at 95 m.p.h. and a curveball that tends to disappear on its way to the plate.

Orel Hershiser won 23 games when he had all those things in place. In 1988, he was not only the best pitcher in the game, but one of the best ever. He pitched the Dodgers to the World Series championship that year. You couldn't get a run against him the last month of the season. A hit was a moral victory.

But Hershiser was holding aces at the time. He was shooting with his own dice. It's easy to be the best speller when you have the dictionary. And when it came to pitching, he was the dictionary.

It was a lock for him to have won 99 big-league games in a bit more than six seasons.

It's for what happened after that point that Hershiser should get the Cy Young Award.

You see, Hershiser is not the Big O anymore.

He doesn't win games with his arm anymore. He wins them with his head. He's like a guy crawling through barbed-wire with only a screwdriver or a swimmer crossing shark-infested waters with a nosebleed. He must feel as if he's got a deck chair on the Titanic.

In 1988, Hershiser was this kind of pitcher: He threw five consecutive shutouts in September--really six because he threw 10 scoreless innings in a game the Dodgers were later to lose in the 16th. He was the Cy Young Award winner (unanimously), sportsman of the year in Sports Illustrated and male athlete of the year in the Associated Press. Among the 23 victories were eight shutouts.

He set the all-time scoreless-inning record of 59--but it was really 67 because he threw 8 1/3 scoreless innings in the first game of the playoffs that year. His earned-run average was only faintly visible--2.26.

There wasn't much you could do with a pitched ball he didn't do. He shut out the New York Mets in the seventh game of the playoffs. Then he shut out the Oakland Athletics in Game 2 of the World Series and pitched the Dodgers to the championship in Game 5.

It was one of the great solo performances in baseball history. In sports history.

But he was only four games into the 1990 season when the calliope suddenly stopped, the balloons popped.

At first, it seemed like only a springtime sore arm, one of those nagging pains. But a couple of X-rays and MRIs later, it was clear this was not a few adhesions or a winter lockup of the muscles to be pitched through. This had to do with the deterioration of a shoulder. This was more than serious, this was catastrophic. This had to do with ending a career.

Dr. Frank Jobe was blunt. No one had ever survived an injury of this kind and returned to pitching. You were lucky to return to combing your hair, never mind curving a baseball.

His manager, Tom Lasorda, has always called Hershiser "Bulldog," which was a mystery to press row. With his stuff, his image ran more to timber wolf.

But the rest of the league now found out what Lasorda was talking about. Hershiser refused to let go. He had the tenacity of an animal that would hang on to a rag even if you threw him out a window with it.

"Dr. Jobe said I had the wrong injury but I was the right patient," Hershiser was recalling the other night at Dodger Stadium. "I did what I was told. I did what was necessary.

"At first, I was scared. I thought 'It's over.' Then I thought 'Why?' It's only the first inning. They never knock me out of the box in the first inning."

No one in baseball expected to see Hershiser on a mound again. Except Hershiser.

For 13 months, he kept after his stubborn dream. He got a new battery mate. God was calling the pitches. "I couldn't have made it without faith," Hershiser insists.

The discouragements were relentless. The game humored him, but to a man they thought Hershiser should take his Cy Young Award and go on home and take up another line of work.

When he finally started to pitch tentatively, he found how little he had to work with. The fastball had lost 8 to 10 m.p.h., the sinker didn't sink and the curveball hung like washing on a line--or a ball on a tee.

"There is a whole range of formulas to pitching," Hershiser recalls. "One of the formulas was how to replace the lost skills. You lost velocity on your fastball? How do you keep that from the batter? What do you replace it with?

"There was a whole lot of bluffing going on. But it was stimulating. I found I relished the challenge. The whole upper end of the spectrum of pitching was erased, but I was not without weapons. I took it as a challenge. I reasoned that I had spent all those years pitching, I must have learned something besides how to rare back and say 'Hey! Hit this!' I think I became a professional pitcher. In other years, when all else failed, I always knew I could just muscle up and throw it past somebody. Now, I had to trick it past them. They would dig in now, which they didn't do before. But you had to find a way to use that."

There was also the pain. "You couldn't throw without wincing. But I got a series of programs I went through after and before my turn--three hours a day."

No one ever worked harder than Hershiser to stay on a roster. The pain subsided but didn't go away every day whether he was pitching or not.

He even consented to go back to the bush leagues. He tested his arm in Bakersfield, San Antonio and Phoenix. It was like asking Pavarotti to sing barber shop, but Hershiser wasn't worried about billing. He was relearning a profession. "I looked at all the pitchers in this game who have succeeded without the great velocity or sharp-breaking stuff and I thought, 'If they can do it, I can do it.' "

He has. The pitcher everyone thought was through on April 27, 1990, has won 31 games since then. He has pitched in 95 games, 591 2/3 innings and struck out 379.

The guy with the pair of treys can bluff the ribbon clerks. The guy who puts an "e" on 'potato" can get to be Vice President.

And now that even the arm might be coming around and 3-to-5 m.p.h. might be returning to his fastball, Hershiser might come to feel that's nice--but he really doesn't need it.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World