A Big-Name Pitcher

Orel Leonard Hershiser IV has become a premier hurler despite an odd handle and a baby face
May 04, 1986

You could probably say that Orel Leonard Hershiser IV was asking for it. Especially with a name like that. People named Something Something Something the Fourth are usually asking for it. Or they've recently stopped asking for it because they already have it. Plenty of it. Orel Leonard Hershiser IV probably was asking for it because last year he had a most remarkable season. An angular righthander who had spent five undistinguished seasons in the minors, Hershiser had the look of a journeyman pitcher when he joined the Los Angeles Dodgers late in 1983. But suddenly last summer he pitched himself to a 19-3 record, not losing a single game after July 7. On the strength of that, Hershiser was asking for it this winter—plenty of it—and when an arbitrator ruled in his favor, the Dodgers were forced to give it to him. What he got was a contract for a million dollars, which amounted to a one-year pay increase of $788,000.

Since that victory, Hershiser has had to endure the silent spring of Dodger hitters, who managed to get themselves shut out in two of his first four starts, which is why he is only 2-2 so far. His 11-game winning streak was stopped in his very first start, but he has still won 24 of his last 29 decisions. His ERA so far is a tidy 2.17, despite working two turns with a painful blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand. The blister developed because Hershiser was unable to pitch for several days after being hit in the ribs by a 98-mph line drive off the bat of Braves slugger Dale Murphy in the last spring-training game at Vero Beach. When Hershiser collapsed on the field after Murphy's shot, he was quite surprised to see practically the entire Dodger organization running toward him, ashen faced. As he lay there, bruised but otherwise intact, he realized for the first time that life could be different for someone with a million-dollar arm. But Hershiser, who still collects bubble gum cards, was having none of that. After being examined in the clubhouse, he went back out on the field and asked Murph if he would mind signing his rib.

Fame has not settled easily upon the bony shoulders of Orel Hershiser, but it may have settled permanently. "People compare me now to Fernando and Dwight Gooden—some of the top young pitchers in the game—and it's still hard for me to believe," Hershiser says. "I was always the kid just trying to make the lineup." Pitching in the same rotation with a cultural phenomenon like Valenzuela, Hershiser doesn't always get the attention that he otherwise might. Even his injury that day was upstaged by a more serious one to Pedro Guerrero, the Dodgers' best hitter, who ruptured the patellar tendon in his left knee sliding into third base. Guerrero is gone for at least three months. With him went the Dodger offense, which is now batting a collective .213.

Hershiser isn't exactly a superstar outside of Chavez Ravine, but he did get a fair share of notoriety with his big arbitration win. When the decision was announced, someone asked his father, Orel III, who's 52, what it was like to have a son making more money than he was. Orel III, who retired from his lucrative printing business when he was just 50 years of age, thought it over for a moment, and then replied evenly, "Not yet."

The Hershiser family has had a long and mostly proud Orel history since coming to this country from Germany. Actually, the only stain on the family name was put there by the very first Hershisers to settle on these shores, a pair of brothers who were paid to fight on the side of the British during the Revolutionary War. Looked at another way, however, the Hessian Hershisers were merely establishing a tradition of free agency in the family, so that generations of Hershisers yet unborn might one day know its value.

There have been Orels in the Hershiser family for longer than anyone can remember, although beyond satisfying tradition, no one can come up with a good reason to keep inflicting the name on defenseless children. Orel means eagle in Slavic, and being named after the monarch of the skies certainly would be a sufficiently good reason to want to hand the name down. Would be, except for one small detail. No one in the family ever knew what it meant. Until Czech-born tennis star Martina Navratilova told Orel the meaning of his name during the filming of a shoe commercial recently, Hershiser was clueless. "After being teased about the name for all those years, it was nice to hear that," he says. Most of the teasing involved jokes about Oral Roberts, or oral fixations and the like. There have also been occasional spelling problems. Dodger fan Frank Sinatra gave the Hershisers a photograph of himself not long ago, and inscribed it to "Oral and Jaime." The picture hangs in a place of honor in Hershiser's den. "That's from our close personal friend, Hank Sinatra," says Orel, whose wife is Jamie.

The first Orel Leonard Hershiser was an attorney and a judge in Buffalo, and he gave the name to his son, who eventually decided that there should be an Orel Leonard Hershiser III. When III got married and informed Mildred, his wife, that he wanted to name their first baby Orel Leonard IV, she resisted. "It's not an easy name to hang on a child," she says. But as it happened, Mildred Hershiser had been named after her mother, making her a junior herself, so she could hardly put up much of an argument.

The family moved from Buffalo to suburban Detroit when Orel IV was VI years old, and before he left Michigan for Toronto at age XII, he could already throw a wicked curveball. His father was working his way up from sales into part ownership of a growing printing business, and with each promotion came another new city-five in all before Orel IV was out of college. "We moved around a lot," Hershiser says, "so I had to explain my name a lot." The name also created a certain amount of havoc around the Hershiser household. "At first we called them Big O and Little O," says Mildred Hershiser. "And then as Little O grew, he became Big O. It finally got to a point where people referred to them as Old O and Young O." Looking sympathetically at her husband, the Formerly Big But Now Little Old O, she laughs. "And he didn't like that."

Hershiser was such a little O until he was nearly 20 years old that he was referred to as a "late bloomer," a term often used by parents to describe grown children who won't leave home. In Hershiser's case, it meant he was a long way from being the Natural. "I was always a step behind the people I competed against," he says. "I usually wasn't even the best player on my team." When he graduated from high school in Cherry Hill, N.J., the only scholarship offer he received was a partial ride from Bowling Green University in Ohio.

During Hershiser's first two seasons at Bowling Green he didn't pitch enough innings to earn a varsity letter. Mostly he shagged balls and ran in the outfield with the other partial riders. He became so frustrated that he began to let his grades slide, and by his sophomore season he was academically ineligible. "My freshman and sophomore years my baseball desire kind of slacked off," he says. "Sometimes I'd be in the middle of playing my 18 holes of golf, and it would get to be time to go to baseball practice, and I'd just go ahead and finish my round. Those were frustrating years. Your friends are playing one level above you, so they go off to one field and you go to another. It's a shock to the ego, and it was something that made me burn with desire to get better." And on a happier note, he became a four-handicap golfer.

Hershiser has a chest that even he describes as "concave," and a rib cage so scrawny you can hear it whistle in a strong breeze. But even to get to be anemic looking, Hershiser had to fill out some, which he did during a six-month period following his sophomore year in college. He sprouted from 6 feet to 6'3" and from 155 pounds to 182. "After that I wasn't just a tall drink of water anymore," he says. "That took my fastball from about 79 miles per hour to 84, and suddenly I started to get more people out." The Dodgers drafted him in the 17th round after his junior season at Bowling Green, but as Hershiser himself admits, "I was more a suspect than a prospect." The prospects got the spots in the starting rotations and the fast track to the major leagues. Hershiser went to the minors and spent five years there, most of them trying to find his way out of the bullpen, where he floundered wretchedly as a short reliever. In fact, after a good showing against rookie league competition in 1979, Hershiser posted an ERA of 3.99 during his next four seasons in the minors, compared with his major league ERA of 2.32. "Relieving just didn't suit my makeup," he says. "I like to look at the game as a whole, set up hitters, work methodically. And I didn't really have one pitch that blew people away."

He also doesn't have a face that scares anybody, particularly hitters. Dodger pitching coach Ron Perranoski says Hershiser has "that clean-cut, librarian look," which isn't exactly considered an asset for a short-relief man trying to strike fear into the hearts of batters. "It's a funny thing about having a baby face," says Hershiser. "If people finally come to the conclusion you haven't got what it takes, they relate it to the face, not to the man inside. The rap on me in the minors was that I had a lot of talent, a lot of potential, but I wasn't supposed to be aggressive enough to pitch in the majors. I think they were relating to the boyish face and, of course, the name. Orel just doesn't sound very dominant."

Which is why people have often made the mistake of underestimating his true grit. When Hershiser was a bespectacled 19-year-old pitching for Adray Appliance in the national championship game of the All American Amateur Baseball Association, his pitching coach told him that if he got the first two batters out in the first inning, he should intentionally hit the next man he faced, the other team's best hitter. "The first pitch, I drilled him right in the ribs," Hershiser says. "He didn't get a hit the rest of the game." Hershiser, who is a devout Christian, says he isn't sure he would do the same thing now. But isn't it interesting that this control specialist has led the Dodgers in hit batsmen the past two years? Hershiser was once asked how he reconciled being an aggressive pitcher, who sometimes forcibly moves hitters off the plate, with being a Christian. "You don't have to be a wimp to be a Christian," Hershiser replied.

He made the Dodgers in 1984 as the 10th man on a 10-man staff, and he and Jamie bought an Orange County tract home with its backyard facing a street called All American Way. Money was tight then, so when the Hershisers decided their bed needed a new headboard, Orel made one himself out of a curtain rod and foam rubber cushions. "We didn't want to put any money in the house," Hershiser says, "because we figured we'd be traded or out of baseball in two years anyway." He is a million-dollar pitcher now, but the headboard is still there.

Pitching in relief at the start of his rookie season in Los Angeles, Hershiser had a rough go of it and was about one more good pounding from being sent down. "I wasn't doing much to impress anybody with why I should be staying in the big leagues," he says. Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda finally summoned Hershiser to his office one day and delivered unto him an upbraiding of such Biblical proportions that it was later referred to as the Sermon On The Mound. "Tommy told me that I belonged at this level, but that I was pitching to every hitter like he was Babe Ruth," Hershiser says. "I gave the big league hitters too much credit, and it was hard for me to believe I could get them out."

When lefthander Jerry Reuss went out with an injury that May, Lasorda was forced to turn to Hershiser for a start against the Mets in Shea Stadium. "Tommy was sitting there autographing balls when I walked into the clubhouse," Hershiser says. "He signed one and handed it to me and said, 'It's your ball. You're pitching today.' "

Hershiser pitched 6‚Öì innings against the Mets and gave up only one run. A month later he was given a spot in the starting rotation and responded with a win that also turned out to be the start of the longest streak of scoreless innings in the league that year. He threw back-to-back two-hitters against Chicago and St. Louis, blanked Pittsburgh and in all went 33‚Öî innings without allowing a run before the nettlesome Murphy broke up the streak with a home run. He threw his fourth shutout in five games against Cincinnati in his next start, nearly pitching a perfect game. He hadn't given up a hit or a walk going into the eighth inning, but with two out the Reds' Nick Esasky hit a 3-and-0 pitch for a single. Hershiser's ERA for the season was 2.66, but only 2.17 in his 20 starts, which would have given him the best ERA in the league that year.

Hershiser also endeared himself to the Dodger press corps that summer. In August in Cincinnati he had one of his rare bad starts, getting knocked out in the sixth inning of a game the Dodgers eventually won 5-3 in 11 innings. Pitchers who usually take early showers aren't around at the end of the game, but when the reporters came down to the visitors' clubhouse after the marathon, there was Hershiser, standing by his locker. "What are you doing here?" he was asked. "I thought you guys might have some questions for me," said Hershiser.

"In the clubhouse he looks like a mild-mannered reporter, but he's cocky out there on the mound," says Dodger third baseman Bill Madlock, who faced Hershiser as a member of the Pirates. "I wouldn't want to try to make my living hitting against him." Lasorda acknowledged Hershiser's tenacity by nicknaming him Bulldog, and that wasn't the only name he was called. After Orel beat St. Louis in a game last season, Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog grumbled. "Hershiser's been in the league one year, and he struts around out there like he's King Bleep."

Despite not having the ripping fastball of a Gooden, Hershiser was overpowering last year. His winning percentage (.864) was the best in baseball, as was his ratio of only one home run allowed for every 30 innings pitched. He threw two one-hitters, a two-hitter and a three-hitter, and during one memorable stretch he faced 29 batters without letting a ball get out of the infield. Hershiser's 11-0 record at home was the best ever for a pitcher at Dodger Stadium, and his ERA in L.A. was a mere 1.08. This year he has come up with a split-fingered fastball to mix into his usual repertoire, as if 19-3 wasn't good enough.

The year 1985 would have been perfect if Hershiser's 10-month-old son, Orel V, hadn't fallen off a bed and broken his collarbone on Sept. 16, Dad's 27th birthday. Hershiser had to pitch the next night in San Diego, and the Dodgers were struggling to win their division. He was so shaken when he got to the ballpark that he immediately gave up a run in the first inning. But at that point the Bulldog took over, and Hershiser wound up winning on a seven-hitter. He was politely answering reporters' questions in the clubhouse afterward when he suddenly excused himself, went into the trainers' room and. his concentration on the game finally broken, started to weep quietly.

The baby eventually recovered from his injury, although it may take a while longer for him to get over the fact that, as the first-born male child, the family name has been passed on to him. "I knew it would be a boy, that I wouldn't luck out," says Jamie, who ruefully admits now that when she first heard about the tradition, she had "just laughed about it." She stopped laughing when Orel II approached her on her wedding day. "He told me that if the first baby wasn't a boy, we could still name the next one Orel," she says. "He was just telling me that if I didn't meet the family standards and have a boy first, we could still save face and name one Orel."

Orel IV's decision to name his son Orel V has come in for some sharp second-guessing. When someone asked the Cardinals' Herzog last season what he thought of Hershiser as a person, the skipper was blunt. "The only thing I don't like about him," Herzog drawled, "is that he named his son Orel Hershiser the Fifth. My name is Dorrel Norman Elvert, and I didn't name any of my kids that."

Two weeks before she delivered, Jamie agreed to allow her husband to name the baby Orel, but as a compromise she suggested calling him Quinton, after the Latin word for five, and that's what they do. "If his name was Joe Smith and he wanted to name our son that," she explained, "I wouldn't have thought anything of it. Let's face it, though, Orel Leonard Hershiser is a weird name."

True. But the way Orel IV is pitching, it could very well become a household name.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAAn Orel history of the Hershisers: Quinton (V, front and center) is surrounded by grandpa (III), dad (IV) and great-grandfather (II). PHOTORONALD C. MODRAWhen Orel took it in the ribs, L.A. gasped. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEIV had a XIX—III record last year, thanks to his aggressive style. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEOrel studies tapes to improve himself, but the Dodgers wouldn't mind a replay of '85. TWO PHOTOSCRAIG MOLENHOUSEHershiser's other pastimes include golf and, yes, collecting bubble gum cards. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEJamie cheered Orel to a 3-2 victory on April 13. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSESeventeen-month-old V shows signs of being a spray hitter as he washes the car—and dad.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)