Orel Hershiser goes to the mound against the Boston Red Sox tonight carrying what he calls a gift.
It’s wrapped in his reconstructed right shoulder, the ability “to pitch as well as I did prior to the  surgery,” he said, wearing the red of the Cleveland Indians instead of the blue of the Dodgers.
Velocity. Movement. Breaking ball.
It’s all there, said Hershiser, who is 5-2 with a 3.54 earned-run average in this era of five-plus ERAs. He also has struck out 43 and walked only 17 in 68 2/3 innings.
“I never thought I’d reach this level again,” he said. “I couldn’t help thinking the other day that I have a chance to make the All-Star team again, to win 18 to 20 games again. I mean, my pitches are crisp enough. It’s just a matter of executing consistently.
“It’s a tremendous blessing and very exciting to feel like I’m 28 and never had surgery. I try to tell myself not to get too excited because I don’t want it to disappear. It’s like when you have something special and want it to remain your own secret.”
It’s hard to keep such a secret in a place where a national apathy toward baseball has been overwhelmed by the hunger for a winner.
The Indians are averaging more than 39,000 a game and will play to capacity crowds at spectacular Jacobs Field over the rest of a season in which they are demolishing the American League’s Central Division.
They are doing it with a powerful offense--the strongest he has seen, Hershiser said--that is averaging almost six runs a game and leads the major leagues in virtually every category.
They are also doing it with an unsung and rebuilt pitching staff that leads the league in ERA and fewest hits and walks allowed. It feeds, to a large extent, off the poise and professionalism of the Hershiser, 36, who got a no-decision in his last start despite giving up only two runs in seven innings against the New York Yankees, and Dennis Martinez, 40, who is 6-0 with a 2.55 ERA.
“It’s strange. I came here as a veteran guy, but I’m sixth or seventh on the depth chart,” Hershiser said of a roster that includes Dave Winfield, 43; Eddie Murray, 39; Bud Black and Tony Pena, 37, and Martinez, the man known as “El Presidente” in Nicaragua.
“With guys like Winfield, Murray and Dennis around, I don’t have to be the graybeard who calms the younger guys down,” Hershiser said. “I’m more like their reserve help. There’s just a lot of respect for the older guys here because of the way we’re still contributing.”
Said pitching coach Mark Wiley, “Orel and Dennis look at pitching as their profession. They’re very serious about it and self-motivated. They take care of themselves and go through certain training routines to make sure they’re ready. That’s why they’ve been able to play for so long.
“It’s good for young players to see that. They have a perspective on how to handle stress and pressure. They know it’s not the end of the world if they have one bad inning or outing.”
Amid the labor mess of last fall and winter, when few could be sure who would be a free agent and who wouldn’t, the Indians targeted Hershiser early, General Manager John Hart said.
“He fit the profile we were looking for,” Hart said, identifying that as a veteran right-hander with character and competitiveness, a proven winner who could still win.
“Our interest never wavered,” Hart said. “There were hundreds of possible bodies out there, but Orel knew he was clearly the guy we wanted.”
And Hershiser knew early that the Dodgers no longer wanted him, despite his 16 years with the organization, despite double-figure victory totals in all eight of his full major league seasons, despite that memorable summer of 1988, when he was 23-8, set a record with 59 consecutive scoreless innings and led the underdog Dodgers to a World Series victory, and despite his total of 22 wins in 1992 and ’93 as he came back from the surgery.
Hershiser, making $3 million a year in his final contract with the Dodgers, said it was largely a business decision, but that ability obviously played into it. He went 6-6 with a 3.79 ERA in the strike-shortened season.
“If I had just won the Cy Young award, I’d still be there,” he said. “But I was prepared for any scenario and took it in stride.
“The Dodgers’ philosophy has long been that they’d rather get rid of a player two years early than two years late. I didn’t expect them to change that for me and I don’t look back and say they let me go because of this or that and so I’ll draw on that as a source of motivation. I don’t look back with any bitter feelings. Nor do I have gut-wrenching thoughts about missing the old organization.
“I miss my friends, but I have new friends and new horizons, and I think that, on a worldly basis, I’m a more rounded person to have experienced another team and another league. I’m better prepared for what lies ahead after baseball.”
After baseball? Hershiser now thinks he may have four or five years left. He feels that positive about his current form.
“I didn’t realize how long it would take to re-educate my arm, but it’s coming naturally now,” he said. “The surgery just keeps giving.”
Hershiser’s euphoria is shared by Wiley, who was the Indians’ major league scout until this year and filed most of the reports on Hershiser.
“I felt he was back to being a durable pitcher,” Wiley said. “He knew how to get a team into the late innings and protect a lead.
“All of the things that impressed me as a scout, he’s doing even better now.”
Wiley also said that a pitcher who has been with one organization his whole career can find a new outlook with a new team.
“Sometimes his old team reaches a point where it takes all of his strong points for granted,” Wiley said. “Maybe he stops hearing how good his sinker is, how much movement he has on his fastball.
“There’s no feedback, none of the positive reinforcement we all need. I’m not saying that was the case with the Dodgers because I don’t know, but I do know Orel is getting a lot of that feedback now.”
And there’s more. The Indians, unable to match the financial offers that Hershiser is believed to have received from the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres but willing to try to help make Hershiser’s family move easier, frosted their offer of $1.45 million this year and a ’96 option at $1.5 million with a house, car and country-club membership.
“This didn’t come down to money,” Hershiser said. “I really wanted to see the American League and join a team with a chance at a championship.
“After meeting the owner [Richard Jacobs] and general manager, I really felt I was coming to an organization with the same integrity as the organization I just left.”
There were three other things that caught Hershiser’s eye:
--The new ballpark and sellout atmosphere.
--The defensive impact of a Gold Glove shortstop, Omar Vizquel, and a Gold Glove center fielder, Kenny Lofton.
--The productive offense.
“You read that a team averages 7.5 runs per game and say, ‘No way,’ ” Hershiser said. “Then you live it, you come to the park every day and see it, and it’s amazing.
“Albert [Belle] and Kenny [Lofton] always kid me by asking what it’s like to pitch for a team that scores for you, and all I can say is that it’s terrific.
“It’s the best offensive club I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen and been on clubs that had good hitters from one through nine [in the batting order], but never with the double and home run potential of this club, one through nine.”
Forty-eight games under .500 in 1991, the Indians are now 23 games over and on a pace to win 106 of 144.
Hershiser, of course, has contributed to and benefited from the onslaught and hopes to be even better once he becomes more familiar with American League hitters and the configurations of the cozier, non-symmetrical parks.
He said it is definitely a more offensive league, requiring an emphasis on breaking pitches because of the frequency with which AL hitters, from good ones to bad ones, are up there swinging.
In the meantime, Hershiser and wife Jamie have put their Pasadena house on the market and are contemplating an off-season move to Orlando, Fla., so that their two sons can be closer to their grandparents, who live in Vero Beach.
The pitcher once spent his springs there and said he would be willing to return if the Dodgers were to offer a coaching or instructional position after he retires, possibly at the turn of the century.
“If something ever opened up with the Dodgers I don’t think I’d hesitate going back,” he said. “The Dodgers have a history of bringing back people who have had an impact. Some day I’ll have to talk to Peter O’Malley and Fred Claire and see if that opportunity is there for me.”