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Orel Hershiser

March 5, 2009

orel-hershiser-95

One day when I was a kid my brother and I went panning for gold. I don’t remember where we got the idea. Probably from something on TV. We chose to ignore the fact that, as far as we knew, no gold had ever been discovered in our town, or in any surrounding town, or in the whole state of Vermont, or anywhere except the sunny golden valhalla a million miles away known as California.

***

Yesterday the news came that the center of the baseball world in 2009 is sunny southern California. At least that’s how the news of the signing of Manny Ramirez struck me. Even though I’m not a Dodgers fan, the news was somehow exciting to me, and I went to my old Baseball Toaster neighbor Dodger Thoughts to congratulate the Dodgers fans there. I blithely threw out a comment along the lines of “the playoffs are a lock now” and went on with my day, checking back later to see that a couple of other commenters had cringed at my hex-inviting certainty. In retrospect, I understood completely, and was sorry I’d used those terms. If it had been my own team that had signed one of the most reliable of the pure-gold sluggers in the history of the game, I would have tempered my excitement with the awareness that nothing, not even something that seems without question to be gold, is a sure thing. Even the most richly gleaming gem might turn out to be pyrite.

***

When my brother and I went panning for gold, it was something like spring, that brief queasy northern version of the season that seems to act like an alternately sentimental and sadistic despot who can’t decide whether to finally ease up on the cowering local subjects or punish them for daring to exit their storm-windowed encampments in anything less than fifty pounds of woolen outerware. We set out down the dirt road across from our house in sneakers, Toughskins, jeans jackets, and the green caps of our little league team. The temperature seemed to rise and fall as the sun ducked in and out of clouds, and during the walk to the stream where we would find our fortune we alternately sweated and shivered. We both carried a tin pie pan in one hand and in the other hand carried an empty mason jar to store all our riches.

***

Los Angeles has not been the inarguable center of the baseball universe for some time, probably not since the man pictured at the top of this page turned in one of the most golden of postseason performances in leading the Dodgers to the 1988 World Series title. It’s amazing to me to think that someone born the year this victory occurred is now old enough to get legally plastered in all 50 states. It seems like it just happened, that just a minute ago Orel Hershiser was mowing down everything in his path. This card, from 1995, a piece of the new “Aunt Celia” wing of the Cardboard God collection (named for my wife’s aunt, who gave me a pack of random cards of relatively recent vintage for Christmas), seems contemporary to me, as if it could have come out a couple years ago at most instead of over a decade ago. On the back is evidence of my distorted accordianing of time, Hershiser already seemingly in the midst of a long, gradual, injury-filled decline from his brief stay at the pinnacle of the game to a much longer spell as a good but not great pitcher apt to lose about as many games as he won. In 1988, Orel Hershiser seemed to be pure gold; by 1995 he was less than that, not gold anymore, not certain, but iffy, fragile, human.

***

My brother and I shivered by the side of the icy stream for a while, pine trees shielding us from the sun even when it shouldered free of the clouds. We kept one hand buried in the pocket of our jeans jacket and panned for gold with the other until the panning hand started to go numb and we switched hands. We didn’t really know how to pan for gold but had gleaned that you scooped up water and silt and tilted your pan back and forth until the water spilled over the sides and left a sludgy residue at the bottom of the pan. Then you sorted through the sludge with the fingers of your relatively warm pocket hand. It was spring, or before spring, or whatever it was in Vermont when somewhere far away down south the Red Sox were getting ready to carry our needy prayers on their shoulders. We were on our knees by a stream, trying to find something miraculous in the cold wet earth.

***

Orel Hershiser went on and on, blurrily, long after his heroics in 1988. I have decided to not look this up so as to lay bare the almost certainly unreliable nature of my memory, but it seems to me he played for several teams, bouncing back and forth from the AL to the NL. I do remember him briefly playing for the Mets late in his odyssey, mostly because my friend Ramblin’ Pete often reminisces about the game when Hershiser Made The Call. I can’t recall when this game was, but I’m thinking it was the late 1990s, and it was a big playoff game full of wrenching twists and turns, and as the game stretched into extra innings a TV camera showed Hershiser in the dugout reaching for the phone and placing a call. By this time in his career, Hershiser was well-known for his devotion to his Christian faith, and Pete believes that Hershiser, in the manner of the similarly squeaky-clean believer Ned Flanders, decided the time was right after all his years of humble service to make a supplication to The Man Upstairs, and did so via the use of the dugout telephone. As proof that this is what indeed happened, the Mets seized victory immediately after Hershiser placed the phone back on its receiver.

***

Spring, let’s face it, is a time to pray. You want to get excited about new beginnings, but you also want to hold back a little, temper your enthusiasm, acknowledge that life has a way of bringing you ever-new forms of pain and woe. You want to make no demands, voice no certainties, claim no entitlements. You want to pray in a way that won’t invite the gods to turn any riches you might possess to dust.

***

Every once in a while we found specks of something that glittered at the bottom of our pans. We used our cold fingers to separate these specks from the otherwise gray silt, and dropped the specks into our mason jars, closing the lids back up afterward as if the specks were capable of flying away, like fireflies. By the time we grew too cold to continue, we each had a thin layer of glittering specks at the bottom of our jars.

Somehow we knew the specks were worthless. But as we walked back home on the dirt road and the sun edged out from behind the clouds we held up our mason jars and shook them, hoping that the specks would fly around like a golden version of the storm in a snow globe. But the specks were wet and heavy. They remained embedded in the muddy residue at the bottom of our jars.

But in my praying, faulty memory I see it differently. The specks, somehow suddenly dry and light as confetti, come loose and swirl in the jars in our hands, shimmering in the light of the warming spring sun.

26 comments

  1. I’ve occasionally panned for gold at the bottom of a bottle of Goldschlager. I was always warm, as far as I can recall. And it was never pleasant. That stuff is disgusting.

    I’ll always remember Orel for 1988, and his time with the Tribe. He was always decent, but didn’t dominate. Unfortunately, his lasting impression for me is his last 2 games in a Cleveland uniform. The 1997 World Series was Cleveland’s last best chance at a championship. Hershiser went 0-2. with around a 10 ERA.

    Overall, though, I remember him fondly.

    Jose Mesa, on the other hand. Fuck that guy.


  2. I’m not sure what your friend refers to as the “Made the Call” game — I’d guess the “Robin Ventura Game” — but I will say Hershiser was a hell of a Met in 1999. He and Rickey Henderson both were guys I didn’t appreciate much in their respective heydays being enemies and all, but I’m glad to have learned to appreciate them that year. Hershiser had absolutely nothing in 1999 but would go out there on short rest and give you 5, and you’d come out of it nicked but never mortally wounded. Like Tommy Lasorda said, a Bulldog.


  3. I went ahead and looked at BB-Ref to see how much of a journeyman Hershiser actually became, and he didn’t move around as much as some guys. He did bestow a certain level of transience on his career, in my mind, by appearing for a team that I don’t recall him ever playing for at all (the Giants).

    I think Hershiser’s Call to the Lord must have happened either just before Ventura’s Grand Single or in the earlier round’s clincher against the D-Backs just prior to Todd Pratt’s game-winning homer.


  4. I remember Hershiser saying he didn’t feel lucky at all to have all his money and stuff because, obviously, that’s what God wanted.
    I’ve hated his guts ever since.


  5. The year this card came out is also the year Hershiser, ever so briefly, reclaimed his mantle as baseball’s greatest postseason hero, winning the LCS MVP award. Unfortunately, he didn’t do it for the team whose name appears on his jersey above.

    One of the greatest, most exciting games I ever recall watching came during another LCS, 1997. It was a scoreless pitcher’s duel between Hershiser and Mike Mussina, with Mussina striking out everyone in the building, and Hershiser holding Baltimore scoreless based purely on guile. Neither one got a decision, the game went extra innings, and if memory serves, ended in the bottom of the 11th or something on a busted squeeze play and steal of home by Marquis Grissom.

    It’s a shame that motherscratcher only remembers Hershiser for his last two games of 1997, because his third-to-last one was a beaut.

    By the way, Hershiser now lives in Vegas and is a professional poker player. Not exactly out of the Ned Flanders playbook, there.


  6. Too bad The Dodgers don’t play the AL East this year. I would love to see Torre back in The Bronx and Manny back at Fenway.


  7. sb1902: I don’t remember that statement by Hershiser but it sounds plausible, and extremely annoying.

    Eric Enders: Is there anything better than a pitching matchup featuring a dominating K-meister vs. a fading gristle and guile guy? Also, Flan-diddly-anders may never have played poker in Vegas, but I think he once got hammered and became a bigamist there in a double-wedding with Mike Scioscia’s former softball teammate, Homer Jay Simpson.


  8. “I would love to see . . . Manny back at Fenway.”

    That’s one reason I love the Dodgers signing of Manny. Keep him far away from Fenway until the raw wounds heal and he’s a Retired Great coming back to standing O’s.


  9. Or until he pulls a Wade Boggs and wears a Dodger cap instead of a Red Sox one at every post-retirement public function.


  10. To this Red Sox fan, a Dodgers cap is a far cry from a Yankees cap; anyway, whatever team Manny chooses to align himself with as he enters his limping, midsection-swelling years, I’m sure the choice will originate from his odd, childlike whims, rather than from some manner of Boggsian kiss-assery.


  11. @ Eric Enders – you’re right. To tell you the truth, Mussina was so incredible in that game that I remember his performance but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you who the Indian’s pitcher was. Unforgivable for an Indian’s fan.

    I think the last 2 games are amplified because it’s Cleveland, we have never won anything in my entire life (in any sport), and the loss to the Marlins was so tragic and tough to take.


  12. “It’s amazing to me to think that someone born the year this victory occurred is now old enough to get legally plastered in all 50 states.”

    Just 12 more days for me…
    I can’t believe it’s been 21 years and that I will soon be 21.


  13. Oops, soon to be 21 and I still haven’t learned to count, 11 more days actually!
    =]


  14. “his odd, childlike whims”

    That nifty turn of phrase has led me for the first time to consider: Is Manny Ramirez our generation’s Rube Waddell?


  15. “Is Manny Ramirez our generation’s Rube Waddell?”

    Ha! You might be on to something. I have a feeling you know much more about Waddell than I do (though I’m a big fan of his), but I think that comparison might do a bit of a disservice to Manny’s renowned (and underrated) work ethic as a hitter/highly conditioned athlete.


  16. When he bacame a member of the SF Giants in 1998…now, that was a particularly painful day.

    I was at the first game of the World Series in 1988. Enough said.


  17. Gotta love a place that has a Rube Waddell reference. It’s too bad baseball history is so long that even a star like Waddell is almost utterly forgotten. If a star like Rube Waddell is forgotten, what hope do the rest of us have?

    I seem to remember a story about Rube Waddell falling asleep with his arm out a train window and being unable to pitch, or pitching under duress, Eric, perhaps you can recall it? (I’d also like to see the guy who does the CSI examination on the cards to figure out where Waddell’s 1909 tobacco card was done.)


  18. Waddell’s weird arm injury came just before the 1905 World Series, and depending on who you believe, he either slept on it wrong, or injured it in a fight with teammate Andy Coakley (who had ruined Waddell’s favorite straw hat in a prank).

    Either way, Waddell’s excuses seemed so implausible at the time that many suspected him of having been paid by gamblers to sit out the series.


  19. As a Dodger fan who was only 2 in magical 1988 Orel Hershiser sits in a strange part of my imagination. He was the last of the Dodger aces to pitch before I understood what an ace was. Hershiser was like the Koufax or Drysdale I could reach out and touch; he was a star I could make sense of, and for that reason less a little less special. Maybe it’s because I remember him as the washed up veteran (I see an Indian not a Met).

    Either way, I’ve always had a tentative appreciation for him. If Orel Hershiser was a food he’d be bologna, a strange meat to me, but obviously very popular with the kids at school. He sits there unconsidered, a piece of deli meat sandwiched between two favorites.

    Before Orel was cultural powerhouse Fernando Valenzuela and what young Dodger fan doesn’t love an overweight long-haired Mexican with a name as fun to say as Fernando Valenzuela?

    After Orel came the overlooked Ramon Martinez, whose rise as a starter corresponded to mine as a fan.

    There is no point to this rambling, so I will end it here. Hershiser, to that generation only recently able to get wasted, is like bologna.


  20. My favorite childhood memory of Hershiser (besides how everyone would wonder what his name would be if he married teammate Steve Sax) was a shampoo commercial he did. In it, he casually mentioned how he took “4, 5 showers a day.” My 8th grade pals and I calculated that out to 1,460-1,825 showers a year in non-leap years. That’s ridiculous, people. So, what, one in the morning, one after an early-day workout, one upon arriving at the park, one after the game, and one before bed? Every single day? Maybe the shampoo brand was O.C.D.? Does anyone else remember this ad?

    (Or am I taking approximately 3 less showers per day than I should be?)


  21. I was born in ’82 so Hershiser and the ’88 team play a large role in my initiation into fanhood by my father, a lifelong Dodger’s fan. Josh I have to salute you for not looking up the statistics at first regarding his teams, for some reason I always remember Orel as a great hitter and of course when I looked it up I realized my perception was probably due to an abnormally high batting average (yes that is what I looked at back then) of .356 in 1993.

    Which reminds me of my favorite statistic anomaly, pitchers with a higher batting average then their ERA. In recent memory only Fernando has sustained that over an entire season (Although Brad Penny was very close 2 years ago).


  22. “My favorite childhood memory of Hershiser (besides how everyone would wonder what his name would be if he married teammate Steve Sax) was a shampoo commercial he did. In it, he casually mentioned how he took “4, 5 showers a day.” My 8th grade pals and I calculated that out to 1,460-1,825 showers a year in non-leap years. That’s ridiculous, people. So, what, one in the morning, one after an early-day workout, one upon arriving at the park, one after the game, and one before bed? Every single day? Maybe the shampoo brand was O.C.D.? Does anyone else remember this ad?

    (Or am I taking approximately 3 less showers per day than I should be?)”

    Orel Sax. Maybe it’s because it’s nearly 3am, but I laughed out loud at that. Thank you for making my night.


  23. ericnus: Thanks for chiming in; it’s astounding to me to think that Hershiser is too far in the past for actual legal grown-ups to claim as one of their own.

    gedmaniac:
    “4, 5 showers a day”

    Oh my god I remember that commercial vividly, and had the same dual reaction of thinking A) this guy is nuts and B) or am I nuts (i.e., exhibiting the obliviously improper hygeine of the mentally ill)?

    staringatthelight:
    The back of the card shown here has a picture of Hershiser at bat, looking like he just belted one, so maybe that furthered the idea that he knew what he was doing at bat. Also, wasn’t he a pretty good two-way player as an amateur? I have a memory, very possibly confusing him with someone else, that he at one time considered breaking in as a position player.


  24. I’m glad “Orel Sax” is still bringing the laughs.

    Also, I panned for gold in gold-less New England, too. More than once. There was definitely some stuff that LOOKED like gold.


  25. The first sentence of the third paragraph is amazing.
    I also recall some comments Hershiser made similar to the one sb refers to above that struck me as pretty repulsive.
    Tiny Tim, the “Tiptoe thru the Tulips” guy, and also Lenny Bruce , I believe, were compulsive showerers (?) but I don’t remember them getting commercials. I wonder what Orel what think knowing he had something in common with those two; he’d probably have to shower about it.


  26. staringatthelight: I found several HOF pitchers who fit the criteria of higher batting ave. than ERA, Drysdale in’65, Gibson in ’68 and ’69, and Seaver in ’71. I’m sure there are others.



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