In the long-standing tradition of kicking a New York Mets fan when he's down, we offer this conjecture: Where would the cellar-dwelling Mets be if they didn't have the top reliever in the National League? The sub-basement? One of the few rays of sunlight filtering into another dank and moldy summer of baseball around Shea Stadium has been the emergence of Jesse Orosco as the best man out of the Mets' bullpen since Tug McGraw. Through Sunday, Orosco had 15 saves, an 11-5 record and a league-leading earned run average of 1.21, and was the leading candidate for Fireman of the Year honors, thanks in no small part to two of the most amazing weeks of relief pitching since acid met indigestion.
Between July 31 and Aug. 14 Orosco appeared in nine games, won five, saved four and pitched 18‚Öî scoreless innings, earning recognition as the NL's Player of the Week two times running. In the process he beat the Pirates twice in one day, becoming the first Met pitcher since the immortal Willard Hunter (1964) to win both games of a doubleheader. In all, the 26-year-old lefthander has either won or saved 26 of the peckless Mets' 53 victories. "It's like last year with Bruce Sutter," says Mets First Baseman Keith Hernandez, who was a St. Louis teammate of Sutter's until a June trade sent him to New York. "If we get to the seventh inning tied or ahead, we've got a pretty good idea we'll win."
Orosco's most notable inning came on Aug. 7 against the Cubs. With the Mets leading 6-4 and none out in the 10th, he loaded the bases on two walks and an infield hit. He then fanned Keith Moreland and Mel Hall, the latter on three called strikes, and got Ryne Sandberg on a grounder, for the game's final out. "A year ago I would have been down after loading the bases," says Orosco. "I'm a different person today."
His transformation is due partly to the faith of former Mets Manager George Bamberger and partly to Orosco's own perseverence. The Mets acquired Orosco in December 1978 to complete a deal that sent veteran Pitcher Jerry Koosman to Minnesota. At the time, Orosco had exactly half a season of Class A ball behind him and was so obscure that when the Mets mentioned his name to Twins owner Calvin Griffith, Griffith asked, "Who's he?" Orosco went to the Mets' camp the next spring hoping to be promoted to Double A, but he was so impressive in six appearances, pitching 10 shutout innings, that Joe Torre, then the Mets' manager, told him, "Well, kid, you're going north this season."
"Is that toward New York?" Orosco asked.
"That's all the way to New York," Torre replied.
It was a mistake. Orosco got hit hard and lost confidence, and Torre later vowed he would never again rush a young pitcher to the majors. Orosco spent half of the '79 season, all of '80 and most of '81 in the minors, alternately starting and relieving. Finally, Bill Monbouquette, then Mets' minor league pitching coach, recommended that Orosco go to the bullpen. "He'd go three or four good innings," recalls Monbouquette, now the Mets' pitching coach, "then his arm would go flat. It was like night and day. And the thing was, Jesse knew it. He wanted to be a reliever, but he was so quiet he never told anybody."
Orosco returned to the Mets' bullpen for the last month of 1981, and when Bamberger became manager the next spring, he immediately took an interest in Orosco and taught him a slider, which Orosco now throws, according to scouts as well as Ron Guidry of the Yankees. Mostly, however, Bamberger worked on Orosco's mental attitude. "Jesse used to get a little walk-conscious," says Bamberger, who resigned as manager in June this year and is currently working for the team on special assignments. "There's an old saying in baseball: If you're going to walk somebody, walk him with your good stuff. He'd start to aim the ball, so he'd get it in there with nothing on it."
Recalls Orosco, "I didn't have too much confidence in those sharp situations, when one run will decide a game. I put a lot of pressure on myself. Every day Bamberger would have Monbouquette get me into the office, and they'd tell me, 'You've got to have fun out there.' If I had a loss one night, he'd put me right back in the next night if it was close."
By mid-August of last season Orosco had only one save and a 2-8 record but a decent 2.99 ERA. "He was sitting on a fence, ready to fall either way," recalls Bamberger. Then, on Aug. 16, 1982, Jesse's father, Raymond, died of a heart attack at the age of 55. Jesse left the Mets to attend the funeral in Santa Maria, Calif. Raymond Orosco Sr. had had a powerful influence on his son's life. A construction worker, he had founded and funded, pitched and played first base for a semi-pro team called the Santa Barbara Jets. "He bought the bats and balls and uniforms," says Jesse's mother, Tomasa, who kept score at the Jets' games. "I sewed on all the words." Jesse and his older brother, Raymond Jr., were bat boys, while the five Orosco daughters sold sno-cones and tickets to raise money for the churches and charities the team supported. One summer a Mexican team traveled from Yuma, Ariz. to Santa Barbara for a muscular dystrophy benefit that netted about $900, a sizable sum from fans who could ill afford it.
Jesse grew up promising his parents that someday he would pitch in the big leagues and buy them a new house. "A lot of times my husband said, 'My son is going to make it, I know he's going to make it,' " recalls Tomasa. "He used to get very excited when he saw Jesse pitch on television. The last time he saw him pitch, I think, was the Saturday before he died. At the funeral Jesse told me, 'Mom, Dad got me this far, and I'm going to work harder for him and you.' But I didn't know he was going to work this hard."
The turning point came in a game against the Cardinals last Sept. 10. The Mets had a 2-0 lead in the ninth inning and Orosco gave up a lead-off homer to Hernandez. George Hendrick was on deck, and Bamberger walked to the mound. "I thought he was going to take me out," recalls Orosco, "but he told me, 'Kid, this is your game to win or lose.' I thought, 'if he believes in you, why can't you believe in yourself?' "
Orosco retired the side, and from that point on he has been the best reliever in the National League. "He came into my office after that Cardinals game and thanked me for staying with him," Bamberger recently recalled. "He's just a helluva humble kid. And now he's got to be the top lefthanded reliever in the league; maybe in either league. He could be one of the greatest ever."
As far as Tomasa Orosco is concerned, the same holds true for Bamberger. "Jesse liked Mr. Bambi very much," she says. "I didn't see him to thank him before he left, but I would like to. Mr. Bambi did a marvelous job with my son."