As the fly ball disappeared into the glove of Los Angeles Dodger rightfielder Jose Gonzalez, Orel Hershiser watched on bended knees just in front of the pitchers' mound. His posture suggested genuflection, and, indeed, the lazy poke by the San Diego Padres' Keith Moreland to end the bottom of the 10th inning last Wednesday night at Jack Murphy Stadium was the answer to a prayer. With that out, Hershiser surpassed one of those records that was never supposed to be broken: the mark of 58 consecutive scoreless innings set by Dodger Hall of Famer Don Drysdale 20 years ago.
In the ensuing two decades, that record wasn't threatened—until Hershiser came along and erased it. He did it with his 114th pitch of the evening, then greeted a wave of teammates on the infield and hugged a waiting Drysdale in the dugout, while 22,596 usually hostile Padres fans saluted him with an undulating standing O. Just minutes before, in the top of the 10th, Hershiser suggested in the dugout that he be lifted from the scoreless game; he wanted to equal, not surpass, Drysdale's mark. But L.A. manager Tom Lasorda said, "You're going all the way," and he coaxed Hershiser into returning to the mound.
Later, as the game drifted toward its 16-inning conclusion, a 2-1 loss for the Dodgers, Hershiser, who departed after the 10th, sat in the Los Angeles clubhouse and explained why he was reluctant to break the record. "Feats like that are done by people who are great, and I'm not great," he said. "I'm just one of the guys, glad to be here, glad to be in the big leagues. You guys can label me great, but I'm not great in my mind."
A few minutes later, the protestations ceased, at least momentarily: As a reporter began a question, "If you win the Cy Young Award...?" Hershiser interrupted, saying, "You say if?"
When Cooperstown seeks a symbol of Hershiser's record for enshrinement, it should consider a piece of his mind. Despite a 23-8 record, a 2.26 ERA and an arm that has lifted the Dodgers into the playoffs against the New York Mets, he retains the attitude of the kid who, before he blossomed as a 27-year-old, was cut from his high school and college teams. He permits himself the smallest possible measure of self-satisfaction and goes on from there.
"Pitch by pitch, I'm confident," he says. "I have confidence I can throw the ball low and away or to a certain spot eight times out of 10. I have the confidence to throw a curveball in the dirt when I have two strikes on a hitter or that I can knock someone down when necessary. I know I can perform in a given moment. But to put all those moments together—no. That's greatness."
For someone who professes to be unworthy of greatness, Hershiser began pursuing it with a remarkably sure hand after his third straight shutout, a 1-0 victory against Atlanta on Sept. 14, drew attention to his streak. It had started a fortnight earlier, when he inscribed four 0's on the scoreboard at the end of a 4-2 win in Montreal. It helped his concentration that the Dodgers were in the thick of the race—they clinched the National League West on Sept. 26—and that their inept offense was almost as adept as he at amassing goose eggs.
But there were distractions, too. On Sept. 19, Hershiser faced the Houston Astros while his four-day-old son, Jordan, was in a Pasadena hospital, suffering from fluid buildup in his lungs. Hershiser threw a four-hitter for a 1-zip victory. Jordan pulled through too, and he was home within the week.
The streak appeared to have ended four days later in San Francisco. In the bottom of the third—shutout inning No. 43—with Giants runners on the corners, Ernest Riles slapped a grounder that second baseman Steve Sax tried to turn into a double play. Riles beat the wild throw to first, but second base umpire Paul Runge ruled that Brett Butler, the runner who had been on first, had interfered with the relay attempting to break up the DP at second. As a result. Riles was called out, ending the inning. Hershiser sprinted off the field before any minds could change, and he went on to win 3-0. "He was all smiles," says Dodger pitching coach Ron Perranoski. "He knew he'd gotten his break."
Since Hershiser last gave up a run, he has turned 30, U.S. Olympians have traveled to Seoul and back, and Danny Jackson of the Cincinnati Reds has seen his hopes for his version of a gold medal, the Cy Young Award, disappear. Throughout the streak Drysdale, a Dodger broadcaster, has had a bird's-eye view. The Big D publicly cheered Hershiser on, but Drysdale wondered aloud last week about a ruling by the Elias Sports Bureau, the official keeper of big league stats, that excluded a pair of outs from his streak (fractional innings are included only in the records of relievers). "Is Elias running baseball, or is baseball running baseball?" Drysdale asked. "My streak was 58⅖, the way I look at it."
As for Hershiser, the closer he came to the record, the more nervous he got. And why not? Before this season he had pitched only 11 shutouts in 124 career starts, including just two in his previous 70 starts. He had every reason to be daunted by what he was trying to achieve. Meanwhile, San Diego's Tony Gwynn, the league's leading hitter, studied films of Hershiser and relished the challenge ahead. "He's going to have a plan for everyone," Gwynn said. "That part's exciting as a hitter, because you know he's put a lot of thought into how he's going to get you out."
Once the game got under way, the 6'3", 192-pound Hershiser worked quickly, almost impatiently. "I didn't want to choke at the beginning," he said. "But after the fifth I had shown myself I could perform under that kind of pressure." After that he loosened up and began talking to himself. "When I talk to myself, I get animated, and I didn't want to be out there early in the game, cheering every out and inspiring the Padres."
Avoiding his curveball, which he might hang, Hershiser stuck with his sinker and his 90-mph fastball, and he cruised. In all four of his at bats, Gwynn, despite his preparation, grounded to the second baseman. The Dodger hitters, ever obliging, were no better against Padres starter Andy Hawkins, thus forcing the game into its historic 10th inning.
When it was over, Drysdale was gracious. "They call him the Bulldog," he said, "and you were able to witness why." Hershiser demurred: "He was a much better pitcher than I am." About the only place Hershiser extols himself is in his personal computer, where he keeps accounts of all his starts. In those files, opposing hitters are identified as dummies, and Hershiser is presented in all his statistical excellence. What notes would he enter after Wednesday night? "If I put this in my computer," he said, "I think it'll short-circuit."