The Bulldog Earned His Payday

OrelJimmyAckPhoto

Orel Hershiser enjoyed a 59-inning scoreless streak in 1988. /Jimmy Ack photo

By Glen Sparks

“Grab a bat, kid.”

Tony Phillips swings and misses to end the 1988 World Series. The underdog Los Angeles Dodgers knock off the Oakland A’s 5-2 in the fifth and deciding game.

Orel Hershiser, on the mound at the end, turns slightly to his left. He looks briefly to the sky. Rick Dempsey sprints out to greet the L.A. ace and hoists him into the air. The catcher offers his hearty congratulations following a glorious run.

Kirk Gibson’s epic, one-legged home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1, on a 3-2 backdoor slider off Dennis Eckersley, remains—deservedly so—the great frozen moment of the ’88 Series. Hershiser, though, remains the most heroic figure in the Dodgers’ improbable run to a championship season.

If No. 55 did anything wrong in 1988, he kept it a secret. From Aug. 14 until the Series’ end, Hershiser compiled a 10-1 won-loss record with a 0.65 ERA. Over 14 starts, the 29-year-old tossed 11 complete games and eight shutouts. He ended the season with a 59-inning scoreless streak.

Not surprisingly, the baseball writers voted Hershiser the National League Cy Young Award. The 6-foot-3-inch right-hander went 23-8. He led the league in wins, innings pitched (267), shutouts (eight) and complete games (15). He ended up third in ERA (2.26).

Hershiser, a 17th-round draft pick out of Bowling Green University in Ohio, is the only player to win a Cy Young, Championship Series MVP Award and World Series MVP Award in the same season. He also earned the Sporting News Pitcher of the Year honor and was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year

He did all this and looked like a CPA at the same time.

Orel Leonard Hershiser IV, born Sept. 16, 1958, made his Dodger debut in late 1983 and was named to the team’s opening-day roster in 1984. Early that season, he got pounded during one start. Tommy LaSorda, the Dodgers’ Alpha-male skipper, didn’t like the way the rookie pitcher went about his business. Tommy barked at him during a meeting on the mound. You’re giving these hitters too much respect, LaSorda said.

The manager didn’t like Orel’s pitching, and, frankly, he didn’t like his name. What kind of name is “Orel”? Tommy started calling him “Bulldog.”

Well, maybe that helped. Anyway, Hershiser turned into one of the game’s topped hurlers. His sinking fastball probably helped, too.

In 1985, Hershiser went 19-3 to go with a 2.03 ERA. (He finished third in the Cy Young voting.) He followed that up a so-so 1986 campaign (14-14, 3.95 ERA) and simply did not get much run support in 1987 (16-16, 3.06, sixth in the Cy Young race).

The 1988 season was magical, of course. Catcher Mike Scioscia said, “He was flat-out nailing every pitch.” During the scoreless streak, opposing batters went 0-for-31 with runners in scoring position and 0-for-9 with runners on third base.

Hershiser extended his scoreless streak to 67 innings in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series versus the New York Mets (Technically, playoff innings do not count as part of a regular-season streak.) He gave up two runs in the ninth inning of that game. The Dodgers went on to lose 3-2.

So, what did he do? He started another streak in the final frame of Game 3 of the NLCS. That one lasted 21 1/3 innings before he gave up two runs in the World Series clincher. (He recorded  a save in Game 4 of the NLCS and threw a shutout in Game 7. He also threw a shutout in Game 2 of the World Series.) All told, Hershiser gave up seven runs in his final 101 2/3 innings of 1988.

Following the on-field celebration after the World Series concluded , a still hyped-up Hershiser marched toward the visiting clubhouse in Oakland. A kid wearing an A’s cap spotted the Dodgers hero.

“You were lucky, Hershiser,” the kid said, according to the book Out of the Blue.

Hershiser: “Grab a bat, kid.”

The Dodgers rewarded their star pitcher on this date in 1989.  Avoiding arbitration, the team signed him to a three-year, $7.9 million deal, the largest contract ever given up to that point for a pitcher.

Hershiser started the 1989 season in fine fashion. He began 14-8 with a 2.40 ERA. (He did, however, give up a run in the first inning of the season to officially end his streak.) Then, the L.A. offense went into the doldrums. Over his final 10 starts, Hershiser went 0-7 but with a 2.10 ERA. On his final start of the season, he was 14-15. He pitched 11 innings that day and evened his record.

LaSorda wanted to take him out early. Hershiser refused to give him the ball. Talk about “Bulldog.”

“I didn’t want to finish with a losing record,” Hershiser told ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian later. “I told Tommy, ‘I’m not coming out of this game. I have to win.’”

He looked a like a future Hall of Famer at that point. But, any chances of Cooperstown blew up the same day his shoulder did. Hershiser missed much of the 1990 season after undergoing rotator-cuff surgery on his right arm. He was never the same.

Yes, the Bulldog pitched another decade in the majors. He even went 45-21 in three seasons with the Cleveland Indians (1995-97), thanks in part to the team’s battering offense. He won the 1995 ALCS MVP award, going 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA. He struck out 15 batters in 14 innings.

In general, though, his post-surgery pitches lacked the bite of his early throws. He retired early in the 2000 campaign after going 1-5 with a 13.14 ERA as a Dodger. He compiled a 204-150 career mark and 3.48 ERA.

Hershiser never made it to the Hall of Fame (lasting just two years on the ballot). That doesn’t make him any less a Dodger great. He put together a marvelous career, full of highlights, memories, and one magical season.

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