There was the improbable, the impossible and what Orel Hershiser did.
Zero after zero after zero filled stadium scoreboards whenever the Dodgers ace pitched late in the 1988 season.
Nobody stood a chance except those who rooted for uneventful innings.
A run never crossed home plate during Hershiser’s 59-inning scoreless streak, which topped Dodgers Hall of Famer and then-team broadcaster Don Drysdale’s previous major league record by one inning.
Actually, that’s not true.
There was a time the scoreboard showed Giants 1, Dodgers 0 in the third inning of a game at Candlestick Park.
San Francisco’s Jose Uribe scored on Ernest Riles’ infield chopper with one out and runners on first and third base, ending Hershiser’s streak at 42 innings.
For the moment, anyway.
Hershiser’s streak was reborn when umpire Paul Runge ruled that the Giants’ Brett Butler, who was forced out at second base on the play, had drifted too far right of the base on his slide and interfered with Dodgers shortstop Alfredo Griffin’s attempt to complete a double play.
Butler and Riles were both out, even though Griffin’s throw had sailed over the head of first baseman Tracy Woodson. The run was taken off the scoreboard. The streak lived on.
“For something like this to happen,” Hershiser said of a streak that started 25 years ago Friday, “you have to catch one break.”
A quarter of a century later, Butler maintains that he wasn’t out of line by taking his normal route to second base.
“That was the only time in 17 years that that’s ever happened to me,” Butler, now manager of the triple-A Reno Aces, said of the obstruction call. “I’ve done it the same way for all those years.”
Said Runge, who retired after the 1997 season: “If he did that, I would have called it every time I saw him do it.”
As Runge thrust his thumb into the air to signal the double play, Butler raced out of the dugout in protest. Giants Manager Roger Craig argued with the umpire for five minutes.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers vacated the field as Hershiser uttered a name that might have been recognized by only Drysdale and a handful of others at the game that night.
“I started yelling, “Dick Dietz revisited!’ ” Hershiser said. “I’m sure a lot of people were like, ‘What in the world is he saying?’ ”
Dietz was the batter who nearly ended Drysdale’s streak at 45 innings in 1968. Drysdale hit Dietz with a pitch with the bases loaded, but umpire Harry Wendelstedt ruled that Dietz had not sufficiently tried to avoid the pitch. The run was erased and Drysdale eventually retired Dietz.
Hershiser had long considered Drysdale’s 58-inning scoreless streak an unbreakable record. He was reminded of the feat in spring training each year in Vero Beach, Fla., where pictures of the Dodgers great adorned the clubhouse wall.
Drysdale and Hershiser had discussed the streak on multiple occasions as mentor and protégé, but the chatter stopped abruptly after Hershiser started collecting shutouts over the final month of the 1988 season.
“After the streak started,” Hershiser said, “he avoided me so he didn’t put any pressure on me. He was classy.”
It all began when Hershiser held the Montreal Expos scoreless over the final four innings of the Dodgers’ 4-2 victory on Aug. 30.
He followed with five consecutive shutouts, including the controversial victory over the Giants that stretched his scoreless streak to 49 innings.
Hershiser needed nine more scoreless innings in his final regular-season start to tie Drysdale’s record. When the Dodgers and San Diego Padres were tied at 0-0 after nine innings, Hershiser pleaded with Manager Tom Lasorda to take him out of the game.
The Dodgers had clinched a playoff berth, Hershiser reasoned, and it seemed selfish to chase records when he could use the rest prior to his first postseason start against the powerful New York Mets.
“I loved it because he had so much respect for Don Drysdale,” Lasorda said of the pitcher, who died of a heart attack in 1993 at age 56. “That was the thing he was concerned with. He just needed someone to push him a little bit. I told him, ‘Get out there and break it. You’ve come this far.’ ”
Hershiser returned to the mound and peered into the press box at Jack Murphy Stadium (now Qualcomm) to salute Drysdale but couldn’t locate him. He followed through with the gesture anyway, figuring someone would inform Drysdale of the tribute if he didn’t see it himself.
Drysdale had left the broadcasting booth so that he could interview Hershiser in the dugout for the postgame radio show. After Hershiser retired Keith Moreland on a fly ball for the final out of the 10th inning to set the record, Drysdale was waiting for him as he walked off the field.
The legend embraced the pitcher who had just one-upped him. No one cared that the Padres would go on to win the game, 2-1, in 16 innings.
“I felt wonderful for Hershiser,” legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully said. “And I thought we were blessed. I mean, what a set of circumstances to have the man whose record is broken, part of the same group with the man who broke it. That was, to me, kind of a special moment.”
It was one of many during a season in which the Dodgers won the World Series and Hershiser captured his only Cy Young Award.
Hershiser has never seen a replay of the controversial call that kept him at the center of the baseball universe that summer. One of his teammates wondered whether the streak had any bearing on Runge’s decision to keep it going.
“I think it could have gone either way,” said Woodson, the first baseman. “As an umpire, is he thinking about the record at that time? I don’t know.”
There’s no gray area according to the parties directly involved in the play.
Said Butler: “I think if there was not a streak there, it wouldn’t have been called.”
Said Runge: “In my mind, it was clear-cut. Anyone who would be afraid to make that call in any situation is not a very good umpire.”
Ultimately, Hershiser proved to be the game’s best pitcher that season.
Not that he didn’t mind a timely assist that lent some symmetry to his pursuit of a hallowed record.
“He caught a break,” Hershiser said of Drysdale, “and I caught a break.”
Correspondent Steve Dilbeck contributed to this report.