He was 16-6 overall, 11-2 after the All-Star break, 4-0 in September.
He won his only start against the Boston Red Sox in the opening playoff series, was 2-0 against the Seattle Mariners as the most valuable player of the American League championship series and was 1-1 against the Atlanta Braves in the World Series.
At 37, six years after his reconstructive shoulder surgery with the Dodgers, pitching for the powerful Cleveland Indians, Orel Hershiser was on top of his game again in 1995, which is the way he wants it no matter what he pursues after his career ends--broadcasting, coaching, managing, front-office administration.
Ruminating about his future in a wide ranging interview at the Indians’ Florida training base on the eve of the 1996 season, Hershiser said:
“I can see being a pitching coach for a year or two and then becoming a manager. I can see being an assistant to the president and then becoming a general manager.
“I like to teach and I don’t see much teaching in broadcasting. However, I would prefer being with my family, going into broadcasting and doing something as an entrepreneur if, in either of those other two scenarios, I wasn’t going to be in the top spot. I want to be in the top spot.”
Trying to pick up where he left off in October, Hershiser was pounded in his first two starts of 1996, but was back in top form Tuesday, going seven innings, giving up six hits with seven strikeouts and no walks in a 7-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins.
“At my age, when you have a bad game they wonder if it’s because you’re finished,” he said. “So you’re always in a protectionist mode. But sometimes there is just no reason. You just have a bad day. Other people in other lines of work can have a bad day without having a story written about it. They just get up the next day, have their cup of coffee and cereal and go to work.”
Driven through a long rehabilitation with the Dodgers to regain his top gun form of the late ‘80s, Hershiser’s 1995 success earned him a contract extension through 1997. Will it be his last? He won’t speculate.
“I told my wife this winter that I can’t believe how good my arm feels,” he said. “I feel like I’ve found the fountain of youth.
“It’s a great feeling to have my health back and be on a team like this. This is not only the best offensive team I’ve ever played for, it may be the best I’ve ever seen.
“The Indians have come so far that it’s almost as if [we went through spring training] preparing for the playoffs instead of the regular season. I looked at what they did over the winter [adding Jack McDowell and Julio Franco] and said ‘wow.’ One more ace pitcher to carry us through a short series and another right-handed batter to make us better against left-handed starters. All they would have to do to make my life perfect would be to buy us an airplane in which to travel.”
Of his October brilliance, Hershiser disclosed that two late-season bullpen workouts in which he pushed himself physically to improve his curve and sinker proved to him he could take his shoulder to another level.
He spoke about the need for players to recognize their responsibilities as role models, his ongoing relationship and possible re-employment with the Dodgers, a controversial audition with Fox in January and his difficulty measuring the possible rebirth of fan interest nationally because Cleveland has re-emerged as a “baseball utopia,” unaffected last year or this by any negative reaction to the strike.
“The fans in Cleveland wanted baseball back and didn’t give us any flack when they got it,” Hershiser said.
Question: What do players have to do generally to help reinvigorate the game?
Answer: Players need to take the responsibility to be role models, whether they want to be or not. I’ve said that during good labor times and bad labor times, at the start of my career and now near the end of my career. We need to train the people who are the product of a big business to be friendly with fans, to have manners, to treat reporters with respect because they’re our arm to the public. You may not want to do it, but it’s what you signed on to do.
Unfortunately, I don’t think many players believe that. I think they feel they can show up, hit .300, drive in a hundred runs, get their check, and go home. I don’t think they believe they have a responsibility beyond that. We have to make it cool, whatever the lingo is, to be friendly to fans, to give good interviews, to sign autographs, smile for pictures, and take time to do charity work. You shouldn’t be ridiculed in the locker room for doing those things.
Q: Should the players’ union be more aggressive pushing that responsibility?
A: They’ve started with a rookie program and that’s great, but the peer pressure is so strong that it doesn’t take long for a rookie going through the program to get swallowed up by veterans in the clubhouse and to forget everything he learned. There need to be refresher courses, anything to help. There needs to be more pressure from the clubs.
Q: Maybe the perception is tainted by guys like Albert Belle and Eddie Murray, but the Indians’ reputation doesn’t seem to fit what you’re talking about.
A: I think what you have to remember with the Indians is that this was a franchise on the ropes, just looking to survive. The emphasis had to be on turning it around on the field. You weren’t going to say, ‘OK, we want good PR and fan-friendly players and we don’t care how they play.’ That wasn’t going to put anybody in the seats. I think they had to start where they started, with the talent on the field, and now that they’re getting the exposure with the caliber of the team and the new facility, they can go to work on the community service and PR side of the product, and I think they’re moving on a faster track than people think because [General Manager] John Hart is very progressive and so is [Manager] Mike Hargrove. This is an organization that does a lot of things right and which responds when something is pointed out that they’re not doing well.
Q: When the players went on strike in August of 1994 and the labor negotiations were most heated, you were actively involved in the talks. You were also a free agent at that point. Do you think that involvement affected your relationship with the Dodgers?
A: I think people initially thought that Brett Butler and I were forced out because of our involvement, but now that Brett has returned to the Dodgers, it kind of disputes that theory. History tells us that the Dodgers usually like to let people go a year or two early rather than a year or two late, and I think that’s what was involved in my situation.
They may have felt that my shoulder wasn’t going to come back as it has, and because we weren’t allowed to throw at the stadium that winter [because of the labor dispute), they didn’t get a chance to see how much I had improved.
Q: In other words, they never raised the specter of your labor involvement?
A: I struggled with that because I didn’t want to burn any bridges to the point that I wouldn’t be welcomed back if they saw an opportunity for my skills, but I also justified my involvement on the basis that my allegiance was to the players’ side and that I would hope that anyone who might consider employing me in the future would see that I had been interested in my profession and conducted myself in a professional way. Whenever I tried to reach Peter [O’Malley] or Fred [Claire] during that period and tell them this is my read of the situation because I was in the room during the talks, they were always appreciative of the call and never antagonistic.
Q: Recent talks seem to be producing some progress. They are more cordial and lower key than those of a year ago. Are you still involved?
A: I’m active, but less active than when I was at the heartbeat of it. Not because of a lack of dedication or interest, but I didn’t see any value in continuing to be involved if the feeling-out process was going to continue. We never seemed to get past that.
Q: Are you saying you were dissatisfied with both sides?
A: My dissatisfaction is that it never seemed like either side wanted to lay their cards on the table and say this is where the deal is. The main reason things didn’t get done was because the truth was never what we were dealing with.
Q: You were well-received in Cleveland, but there was some negative reaction in January when you had the audition with Fox so soon after agreeing to the contract extension. Did people misread your intentions?
A: I think it was taken wrong because people were sensitive to anyone leaving prematurely because of what happened to the Browns [leaving for Baltimore]. I didn’t understand the reaction because athletes are always getting criticized for not preparing for the rest of their lives, and that’s all I was doing, getting my foot in the door, seeing what the audition process is like.
It has always been my intention to return and help the Indians win a world championship, and Fox was aware of that. All we did was explore each other’s interest. At the same time, if Fox were to say [tomorrow] they were offering a million dollars a year for five years, I’d have to think about it.
I’m not closing any doors. I mean, if a club was to say we’d like you to come in and learn our organization with the idea of running it in four years, that would be interesting. If a club was to say we’d like you to manage in double A for a couple years and triple A for a couple more, then take over the major league club, I’d be interested in that as well. Nothing is in cement.
Q: Yet, it would be tough to walk away from your pitching career right now. It seems to be at a new high after the playoffs. Do you think in terms of how much you have left?
A: If you look at in terms of somebody emptying a glass of water, I feel like somebody is refilling it at the same time. I’m not sitting back and going, “Boy, I’m 37 and I don’t want to do that because I’ll just stick with what I am.” I’m really still pushing the envelope, looking for more. I’m not coming to work with a conservative attitude like I was maybe in the last year or two.
Q: You mentioned those two workouts late in the year providing confidence to push beyond that conservativism and reach a new level in the playoffs. How did that evolve?
A: I saw my role at the beginning of the year as a solid big league pitcher--six innings, keep them close enough to win. Then as we got such a big lead, I saw myself as somebody who maybe could be No. 1 or No. 2 in the playoffs, and I needed to make sure I was part of that picture, so I started risking some things. I mean, I didn’t want to just go out there with the old attitude, I wanted to make an impact. I told myself that I wouldn’t be facing a fourth or fifth starter in the playoffs, I’d be facing a No. 1 or No. 2 and I’d have to be better than I am right now, so I started to push myself harder in those two workouts and my arm responded, my pitches began to explode. It was completely different than the first half. I was suddenly saying, “This is the guy I know, this is the guy I was.” I went into the playoffs confident I could dominate again instead of merely trying to survive.
Q: You had a 7-0 postseason record when you lost Game 1 of the World Series to Greg Maddux, 3-2. People were surprised when you took yourself out of that game after walking Fred McGriff and David Justice on eight pitches to open the seventh inning. Both eventually scored. You came back to pitch eight innings and beat Maddux, 5-4, in Game 5, but did you second-guess yourself for coming out of Game 1?
A: It was unfortunate and probably my fault. I started managing myself instead of just being a player, and when I saw [pitching coach Mark Wiley] start to come out of the dugout [after the two walks] I began to think I wasn’t the guy for this situation. I had been trying to make adjustments with each pitch and was still throwing balls and they had a left-hander [Ryan Klesko] coming up. Maybe if I had just been a player and he asked me how I felt and I said I don’t feel that great but you’re the pitching coach, then he would have been able to say, “Well, we want you to still pitch, c’mon go get ‘em,” but I had already taken the thinking to the next plane.
I suppose there’s some merit in trying to be honest, but I put myself in the wrong role. I put myself in the role of a manager. Sometimes I can’t shut this brain down.
Q: It seemed surprising because of your bulldog reputation, your fortitude in those situations.
A: As a veteran, everybody says you’re supposed to get smarter and you’re supposed to know yourself and the game better, but sometimes that takes away from the tenacity and the do-or-die instinct you have as a younger player. Sometimes the sense that you can manage yourself better than the manager can gets in the way of the rookie’s attitude that you’re going to go as hard as you can for as long as you can and you’re going to leave it up to the manager as to when you come out. That was one of the adjustments I made in Game 5 and why I was still wired in the eighth inning and able to do what I did on that line drive [making a self-defense stab of Marquis Grissom’s shot and doubling a runner off first base]. I told myself going in I had to be a soldier on the beach again. I didn’t have that mentality in Game 1.
Q: You now live in Orlando and play in Cleveland. Where do Los Angeles and the Dodgers fit in?
A: So much about Los Angeles is my life. We’re very comfortable when we come back there, and if at any time we need to come back or want to come back or were offered a chance to come back, we would be very comfortable with that. I still stay in contact with Peter O’Malley and Fred Claire by letter and phone and I still talk to Tommy [Lasorda] by phone. I still talk to the people in the Dodger front office and still do charity work in Los Angeles. The Dodgers tend to bring back people who had an impact for them on the field and in the community, and we’d certainly listen if that opportunity came up. The friends and relationships I developed between the ages of 25 and 36 will be with me until I die. I’ll never close the door on that time of my life.