LOS ANGELES — Orel Hershiser will be honored at Dodger Stadium on Saturday night, inducted into the Legends of Dodger Baseball, which includes a plaque on permanent display at the ballpark. During the pregame ceremony, Hershiser will give a speech, for which he has meticulously prepared.
He watched Vin Scully’s Hall of Fame speech and other speeches from the legendary broadcaster. Hershiser also watched various other speeches, and sought advice on what works and what doesn’t.
“That’s how I’ve run my life, by watching other people,” Hershiser said in a phone interview this week. “I’ve watched broadcasters, watched games, when I tried to figure out what I wanted to sound like. I watched pitchers, I listened to Sandy Koufax and [longtime Dodgers pitching instructor] Dave Wallace. I’m definitely an observer and a copier of what it looks like to be successful.”
While Fernando Valenzuela was the star of the Dodgers rotation for the first half of the 1980s, Hershiser was the backbone of the staff in the latter half of the decade.
Hershiser finished in the top four in National League Cy Young Award voting four times in a five-year span. In his first full year in the rotation (1985), Hershiser won 19 games with a 2.03 ERA that was the third-best mark in the majors in non-strike seasons in the 1980s. The two lower ERAs just happened to also be in 1985, by Dwight Gooden (1.53) and future teammate John Tudor (1.93).
Hershiser led the league in innings pitched for three straight seasons (1987-89), and ranked third in the majors in innings (1,259⅓) in his first five full years as a starter.
“He trusted us, left us in our jams and let us work out of our battles,” Hershiser said of his manager Tommy Lasorda, whom he called his baseball father.
It was Lasorda who first gave Hershiser the nickname “Bulldog” as a young pitcher, trying to instill toughness on the mound.
“He’s the first one that gave me confidence that I belong in the big leagues,” Hershiser said. “If you’ve got a nickname then you knew Tommy loved you and wanted you on the team.”
Hershiser’s 1988 season is the stuff of legend. He won 23 games, including eight shutouts and his 15 complete games. Neither of the latter two numbers have been topped in a season by any major league pitcher since.
But how Hershiser finished the season is what cemented his place in Dodgers and baseball lore. He didn’t allow a run in the regular season after August 30. He threw five shutouts in September, then pitched 10 scoreless innings in his final start of the year in San Diego for 59 consecutive scoreless innings, breaking the major league record of Don Drysdale, who was calling the game.
Drysdale was among the Dodgers legends who were ever present during spring training at Vero Beach, along with Sandy Koufax, Roy Campanella, and countless others.
“You never knew, it might be Koufax coming up to work with you, or Johnny Podres, or Larry Sherry,” Hershiser said. “That was another area where you felt the family atmosphere of the O’Malleys.”
Hershiser loved those interactions with Dodgers greats in spring training, and was a sponge, soaking up whatever he could get from past and present Dodgers. Drafted in the 17th round 1979 out of Bowling Green, Hershiser recalled one early spring training in which Rick Monday, then an outfielder with the team and now, like Hershiser, a longtime team broadcaster.
“He told me I drove him crazy because I asked so many questions,” Hershiser said. “‘But Rick, how am I going to find out what to do?’
“When you don’t throw 100 miles per hour, when you don’t have a screwball, you figure out how to make the best out of your pitches, and you’ve got to figure out all the different formulas, and how to use them. I never saw myself as a square peg in a round hole, I’m going to learn all the holes and figure out how to put myself in those.”
Whether it’s Hershiser the young player asking 10 follow-up questions of a veteran outfielder, or Hershiser the announcer preparing for a broadcast, the process remains the same.
“He cares about whatever it is that he does, and whoever it is that he does it with,” said Dodgers announcer Joe Davis, who has called games with Hershiser since 2016. “From the moment I got to this job, I’ve seen him care to the point of obsession with being great on the air and a great partner to me.
“Maybe the curiosity comes from this other quality, but it’s just a deep love of baseball, and for baseball as it’s played today. Not everybody has that. I think that fuels a lot of the curiosity, and yet he’s still asking questions all the time.”
Hershiser in 1988 didn’t stop at 59 scoreless innings. He kept going into the postseason, keeping the Mets off the board for the first eight innings of Game 1 of the NLCS. That’s 67 consecutive scoreless innings.
The Mets won that game and also won Hershiser’s next start in a rain-soaked Game 3 in New York to take a 2-1 series lead, but then the Dodgers went to work. In a wild Game 4 that lasted will past Sunday night and into Monday morning, Hershiser secretly made his way to the bullpen and warmed up, and got the final out in the 12th inning to escape a bases-loaded jam to tie the series. He pitched a shutout in Game 7 to clinch the pennant, then pitched another shutout in Game 2 of the 1988 World Series against the high-powered A’s.
Hershiser allowed two runs in Game 5, and pitched another complete game to finish off the series, jumping into catcher Rick Dempsey’s arms in a moment immortalized on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He won NLCS MVP, World Series MVP, and later the National League Cy Young Award.
Hershiser was on top of the world.
“I don’t know if confidence was the right word,” he said. “I had an idea how to repeat, and I had an idea of how to fix it in a hurry.
“I knew I could throw one more sinker away, I knew I could throw one more curveball in the dirt if I needed to. I knew how to do it. My toolbox was complete, from what Sandy taught me, what Dave Wallace taught me, to what Ron Perranoski taught me, to what Mike Scioscia guiding me taught me.”
Beginning with his last three starts of August 1988 through the World Series, Hershiser went on one of the greatest two-month runs in baseball history. He had a 0.65 ERA in 124⅔ innings. Of his 14 starts, he pitched nine innings 11 times and 10 innings once, and also mixed in an NLCS-tying save on zero days rest.
“He genuinely does feel that, and it’s not false humility at all,” Davis said. “But while you may be a product of those people, you’re still Dodger greatness.”
Hershiser pitched 13 of his 18 major league seasons with the Dodgers. Just like in his playing days, Hershiser found his way back to the Dodgers in his post-playing career as well. He was the Rangers pitching coach under Buck Showalter, he was an analyst alongside Dan Shulman on ESPN Radio for several years. But now, Hershiser is back in Los Angeles, calling games for SportsNet LA.
Hershiser is one of only six Dodgers starting pitchers to win a Cy Young Award. But he sees that, and his career, as an organizational achievement rather than an individual honor.
“I’ve been in the Dodgers organization since 1979. I’ve been encouraged along the way that you’re doing it the way the Dodgers should,” Hershiser said. “I’ve never thought I brought something to the Dodgers that was special. I always felt like I was part of something special, and it’s my job to fill the role of what we’re doing. I’m an actor in a play, and I’m getting coached by the greatest acting coaches in the world.”
“I think this is a celebration of the Dodgers organization past and present. That’s the organization I grew up in and, at present, they keep people like me around and I get to speak with the fans as often as I do.”
Either way, Orel will get his laurels on Saturday night at Dodger Stadium. Well deserved.