How traitorous is it that Orel Hershiser, the former Dodger icon, now wears the uniform of the hated San Francisco Giants?
“Are we talking fantasy or reality?” Hershiser asked.
The reality is that three seasons with the Cleveland Indians served to dilute his blue blood, he explained.
The reality, he suggested, is that in the traitorous realm, where was the Dodger effort to re-sign him after the 1994 season, when he was eventually permitted to leave as a free agent?
“I still haven’t figured that out, but I’ve stopped trying,” he said.
“Fans and the media are afforded the opportunity to remain with one passion. [The players] don’t always have that opportunity.”
Then, too, if his signing with the Giants is so traitorous, where are all those cards and letters with a Los Angeles postmark accusing him of being a Benedict Arnold in spikes?
“The only people I’ve heard from are a few friends [from L.A.] who called to say, ‘Now you’ve done it,’ ” Hershiser said of his signing with the Giants.
“They said, ‘OK, we’ll root for you when you’re pitching against the Dodgers but then we’ll go back to being Dodger fans.’ They’re probably hoping I get a no-decision [whenever I pitch against L.A.].”
The reality comes down to this:
“I’m loyal to the team that’s paying me,” Hershiser said. “I’m not being paid to be an ex-Dodger or an ex-Indian. I’m being paid to be a Giant, to give the Giants everything I have.
“I don’t look at it from the perspective of what I was before, but who am I now and where am I now, so it’s easy to turn the page.
“I genuinely want to play baseball still, and the Giants are giving me that chance. I loved every minute that I was with the Dodgers and I owe them a lot. I still have a relationship with Peter O’Malley, Fred Claire, Tom Lasorda and Bill Russell, but I’ll do everything I can to beat them and everyone else. It’s part of the game.”
Hershiser turns 40 in September, but the Giants obviously believe he can maintain his Cleveland form as they bid to repeat in the National League West with an economically remodeled pitching staff. Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez, who had been acquired from the Chicago White Sox in a nine-player July trade that provided the needed mound insurance down the stretch, left as free agents. So did veteran closer Rod Beck.
It all happened essentially in the wild aftermath of the expansion draft.
Alvarez ($35 million for five years) and Hernandez ($22.5 million for four) were signed by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and the Giants forced Beck’s hand by trading three prospects to the Florida Marlins for Robb Nen, younger than Beck and already under contract for three years.
Giant General Manager Brian Sabean reflected and said, “We were blown out of the water by Tampa Bay. We weren’t prepared to spend that amount of money over that length of time. We were looking to spread our money around, get more bang for our buck.”
Hershiser, he said, was a perfect fit--a veteran who can still pitch and who provides professional leadership.
And who was comparatively inexpensive: $3.25 million for one year with a 1999 option at $3.25 million or a $200,000 buyout.
The option vests if Hershiser pitches 175 innings this year--in which case he also would have the right to reject the option and seek a better deal elsewhere
“Orel had other choices,” Sabean said. “He could have signed with a club [the Baltimore Orioles] that is virtually guaranteed of going to the playoffs. We were flattered. I really felt it added validity to what we’d done last year.”
Hershiser said it wasn’t the money or the rivalry with the Dodgers. He chose San Francisco over Baltimore and St. Louis because of his family’s long affection for the Bay Area, the heart that Manager Dusty Baker and his team showed in winning the NL West and the feeling that the former Candlestick Park, where he has a 9-4 career record, would be an “easier place for me.”
Among the reasons: bigger dimensions than Camden Yards, long and thick grass that aids a sinkerball pitcher and a wind that generally blows out, prompting batters to try to lift the ball, another favorable factor for a sinker specialist.
Also, Hershiser knew he would be reunited with Ron Perranoski, his former pitching coach with the Dodgers.
“Mark Wiley did an outstanding job in Cleveland,” Hershiser said, “but he did not invent Orel Hershiser.
“Ron Perranoski was my Gepetto. He was the originator of my repertoire. He gave me the sinker.”
And in the first two weeks of spring, Perranoski has made corrections in Hershiser’s arm position, enhancing that repertoire.
“There are all kinds of ways to make the ball do what I need for it to do, but the key is to do it in an efficient manner, and that’s what Perry has done,” Hershiser said. “He’s given me back a lot of my efficiency. I hope to be stronger in the sixth and seventh innings now because of that.”
Hershiser was 14-6 last year and 45-21 in three seasons with the Indians, pitching between 167 1/3 and 206 innings. His postseason dominance was punctured some last season, when he was good and bad in the division series against the New York Yankees, brilliant in a sizzling duel with the Orioles’ Mike Mussina in the AL championship series and a loser in two World Series starts, yielding a pair of three-run homers to Moises Alou.
“If we hadn’t made it to the World Series I might still be with the Indians,” Hershiser said, adding that he probably didn’t create a good taste the way it ended, the way Alou ended it for him. On the other hand, he thinks the Indians already had decided “to go find a younger Orel Hershiser and take the age risk out of it.”
Hershiser was neither surprised nor disappointed.
He put it in the category of cutting-edge decisions Cleveland General Manager John Hart has made in recent years--unafraid to pull the trigger on Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga and others.
Hershiser said that playing with a championship team before sellout crowds enhanced what were “dream years for me given my age and what I had been through [with his reconstructive shoulder surgery]. The decision to go to Cleveland couldn’t have turned out better, and I think we came out even. The Indians paid me and I performed. Neither of us can be disappointed, and I’m certainly not going to burn any bridges. I developed relations there that I expect to have for the rest of my life, as I did with the Dodgers and which I hope to do with the Giants.”
Hershiser will help anchor a rotation that includes 19-game winner Shawn Estes, Kirk Rueter, Mark Gardner and a choice from among Osvaldo Fernandez, Julian Tavarez and Danny Darwin, who is the only player remaining from that blockbuster deal with the White Sox last July. Alvarez and Hernandez are gone, and, of course, the six players the Giants gave up.
“No regrets,” Sabean said. “We had to show everyone concerned that we were willing to step up if we had a chance to win. And while we gave up some quality prospects, we’ll be getting draft picks back through the Alvarez and Hernandez signings. We have a chance to replenish immediately with seven picks in the first three rounds [of the June draft].”
And while “everyone in the division seemed hellbent on making a statement” last winter via roster improvements, Sabean believes the Giants have better pitching depth than last year, the confidence of “having proven to ourselves that we earned what we got,” and the conviction that “if we’re reasonably good and reasonably healthy, we’ll be in the pennant race with a chance to beat our opponent every time we take the field.”
Hershiser will take it wearing No. 53, instead of his normal 55, which is worn by Estes.
“The kid won 19 games,” Hershiser said. “He’s the pitcher they’re going to build around for the next decade. I’m near the end of my career. It’s not for me to come here wielding power. It’s up to me to be a team player.”
Thus, the switch to what was the late Don Drysdale’s number, a reflection, he said, of 1) their close friendship, 2) the frequent comparisons between their styles and tenacity and 3) the class and dignity Drysdale demonstrated when Hershiser was breaking his record for consecutive shutout innings in 1988.
“I can only hope that I have the same class and dignity if someone breaks my record,” said Hershiser, who has 179 career wins and thinks it would be appropriate if he was wearing No. 53 in 1999, when he also hopes to surpass Drysdale’s career total of 209.
Two more years? Fantasy or reality?