There will never be another Bulldog. If that wasn’t clear already, it is now.
So much for the idea that Orel Hershiser’s place in Dodgers history would be diminished when the franchise made its long-awaited return to the World Series.
If anything, the opposite has happened. The well-rounded strength of these Dodgers has served as a reminder of what their predecessors 29 years ago were lacking, of the incredible heights Hershiser had to reach to make them champions in 1988.
Instead of being reduced to historical footnotes, his accomplishments are more awe-inspiring than they have ever been. The starts on abbreviated rest. The complete games. The absolute dominance.
Hershiser, 59, feels uncomfortable about this kind of talk.
“This is these guys' time,” he said.
Now an analyst for Dodgers-owned SportsNet LA, Hershiser went as far to downplay the superhuman nature of his magical postseason.
“The game has completely changed,” he said.
Has it ever. Bullpens back then weren’t constructed to cover the last four innings of a game as they are now.
Hershiser shouldered the kind of workload that would be unimaginable today. His manager, Tommy Lasorda, would be under fire for abusing his arm.
When he pitched a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings during the regular season, the streak covered seven games in which he pitched nine or more innings — six complete games, plus 10 innings of a 16-inning game.
He maintained a similar workload in the postseason. He pitched four times in the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets. He started Game 1 and returned for Game 3 on three days’ rest. He pitched in relief the next day, recording the final out of Game 4. Four days later, he started Game 7 and delivered a shutout.
His next two starts were also on three days’ rest, Games 2 and 5 of the World Series against the Oakland Athletics. He pitched nine innings in both games.
The historic season made Hershiser a legend in Los Angeles, elevating him to a status bestowed upon the likes of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Fernando Valenzuela. But Hershiser also paid a price for flying too close to the sun. Only four games into the 1990 season, a torn labrum was discovered in his shoulder. He underwent reconstructive surgery. He pitched 10 more seasons but was never the same.
It was worth it, he said.
“You know when you don’t regret it?” he said. “When you win. You probably do regret it when you lose.”
Did he ever think of how many more all-star appearances he could have made if the Dodgers had taken care of him the way they do their pitchers now?
“Not even once,” he said. “Not even a thought. Everybody has their time, everybody has their culture, their circumstances.”
Working SportsNet LA’s pregame and postgame shows, Hershiser has watched the postseason from an El Segundo studio. When the Dodgers advanced to the World Series by defeating the Chicago Cubs in Game 5 of the NLCS, he was watching alongside former general manager Ned Colletti, former players Nomar Garciaparra and Jerry Hairston Jr., and anchor John Hartung.
Hershiser was delighted for Kershaw, whose regular season accomplishments were overshadowed by previous postseason failures.
“For me, it’s really exciting to see Clayton do so well in a legacy start,” Hershiser said. “This is the best pitcher, maybe, that’s ever pitched. For him to make another step closer to a lifelong dream is just fantastic.”
Even before Game 5, Hershiser always made the questionable assertion that Kershaw was better than he ever was. Hershiser never bought into the idea that his postseason achievements were something Kershaw had to match.
“He’s won way more games, he’s had ERAs in a very offensive era,” Hershiser said. “I don’t even think it’s a comparison. I don’t even think it’s close.
“I was 30 in ’88 and what is he, 29 right now? He’s accomplished it all at such a young age compared to me. He’s on another planet.”
Hershiser insisted his heavier workload was a reflection of when he played, not his superiority.
“I think the athletes are still capable,” he said. “I don’t think it’s what they are able to do, I think it’s what they are allowed to do.”
He used pitching a third time through the order as an example.
“Evaluations have come back that say very few people can do that successfully,” Hershiser said. “So if very few people can go through the order a third time successfully, very few people are going to get an opportunity to do it.
“That wasn’t even a statistic in our day. That’s not to say the athlete isn’t trained to do that now; he is just not able to do it because they have found other ways to construct the roster to win the game more often. It’s just different.”
He pointed to Kershaw closing Game 5 of an NL division series against the Washington Nationals last year, and closer Kenley Jansen’s ability to pitch multiple innings.
“I think we saw glimpses of older baseball last year, when Clayton came in to get the save, when Kenley went more than three outs,” Hershiser said. “I think we see it in the playoffs. It was done a little more often in the past, but I think the athletes prove that when it’s do or die, when everything’s on the line, they are still capable of doing that. I think Clayton is capable. I think Kenley is capable. I think they are all capable of it. I think Brandon Morrow will be capable of it.”
And maybe they will experience what he did in the World Series.
“I hope somebody breaks the 59 scoreless. I hope we get another World Series MVP. I hope we get somebody who’s dreamed about throwing the last pitch of a World Series and gets to do it,” Hershiser said. “I hope that happens for somebody else. I know how good that feels and I hope somebody else gets to experience it.”
If anything, Hershiser is pleased with how the changes under the current ownership and the front office have changed how fans view the 1988 season. Before, Hershiser said, fans brought up the season to measure how much time has passed since the franchise’s last championship. Now, he said, they view it as a preview of what could happen in the coming weeks.
“It’s more of a positive tone than a contextual negative tone,” he said.
Either way, his legacy is safe. The question isn’t whether he will remain relevant, but whether the likes of Kershaw and Jansen will have a place alongside him.