Former San Francisco Giants pitcher Orel Hershiser is the subject of Tony the Tiger in “He was a Giant?” article feature (San Francisco Chronicle file photo)
Orel Hershiser – RHP – 1998 – # 53
He Was A Giant?
By Tony the Tiger Hayes
In 1998, the Orange & Black shocked their fans when they acquired a player who was about as popular at Candlestick Park as attending mid-summer night games in shorts and flip flops.
When it comes to Despised Dodgers, Orel Leonard Hershiser, IV is an all-time great.
We have the former Los Angeles goody two-shoes ranked as a Top 5 all-time Dodgers heel, trailing only Tommy Lasorda and Steve Garvey (you had to be there) and preceding Mike Piazza and Yasiel Puig.
Hershiser, who pitched for the Dodgers from 1983-94 and again in 2000, was a turn off to the Giants and their supporters on multiple fronts.
Not only did Hershiser pitch his best ball against San Francisco, he also epitomized the holier than thou attitude that permeated Los Angeles baseball during the nauseating “Big Dodger in the Sky” Lasorda era.
Hershiser came across as a baseball version of the sycophantic Eddie Haskell character from “Leave it to Beaver. ”
Like the fictional clean-cut teenager, Hershiser presented himself to the world with a gee whiz benevolence. But when no one was watching, all his supposed moral virtue flew out the window as he morphed into a mischievous wiseacre.
One night Hershiser could appear on the Tonight Show singing gospel hymns. The next, he was defiantly drilling Giants hitters and blaming his misfires on a poorly raked pitching mound.
Hershiser had the unique ability to get under the Giants skin like very few players.
Giants closer Rod Beck labeled the Buffalo, N.Y. native a “punk” after Hershiser spent the final game of the 1993 season verbally denigrating the Giants after L.A. took an insurmountable early lead in the crucial contest (10/3/93).
A Giants win that day would have forced a one game playoff with Atlanta, but the Dodgers 12-1 spanking sent the G-Men directly into the off-season, despite 103 regular season wins.
“Hershiser ragged on me the whole game from the top step of the dugout,” said a steamed Giants third baseman Matt Williams, implying the bench jockeying took on a personal tone. “If I face him again there will be line drives right back up the middle. You can bet on that.”
Hershiser was so loathed at Candlestick Park that he regularly required a full-blown San Francisco police escort when he entered and exited the field.
Yes, San Francisco fans cursed Hershiser’s very existence and the feeling was mutual.
“I don’t ever play relaxed in this ballpark,” Hershiser once said of the ‘Stick. “I don’t think they ‘re Giants fans as much as Dodgers haters.”
This was the player the Giants risked on promoting as the stabilizing component of their 1998 pitching staff.
The results could have been disastrous.
Why Was He A Giant?
In 1997, the Giants won their first division title in eight seasons. But they did so with a starting rotation that was middle-of-road at best. Left-hander Shawn Estes was a breakout 19-game winner. Fellow southpaw Kirk Rueter was steady and jouneyman right-hander Mark Gardner was adequate. But after that, there was a precipitous drop off.
To repeat their success in ‘98, Giants pitching would need an injection of professionalism and poise. A veteran arm, preferably one with postseason experience was at the top of San Francisco’s wish list. Shortly before Christmas, the perfect gift fell into the Giants lap.
The free-agent pick-up more than capably checked all the boxes. He was a record setting former Cy Young Award winner and World Series MVP with a truck load of big stage experience.
“He fits in our rotation near the top or right in the middle,” said Ned Colletti, the Giants assistant general manager. “He’ll be a great guy to have around Estes and Rueter and great for a few young guys who might be a year or two away.”
If Colletti was hesitant to mention Hershiser by name, it was with good reason. The club’s prospective new ace was roundly abhorred by Giants fans.
But after spending the previous three seasons in far flung Cleveland, Hershiser and the Giants brass were hopeful that the Orange & Black fanbase’s molten lava hot contempt for their new player had cooled sufficiently.
Hershiser allowed: “If Giants fans compiled a hate list, Tom Lasorda would be at the top… and I’d be next.”
But the long time blue blood announced he was willing to let bygones be bygones and hoped the feeling was mutual.
Orel then let everyone in on a little secret. Despite his long running animus with the Giants, he held a special kinship with Tony Bennett.
Yes, Orel Hershiser announced he had left his heart in San Francisco.
“San Francisco is my favorite part of the country,” he unabashedly pronounced, laying it thicker than the frosting on Lasorda’s birthday cake. “I’m a big fan of sweater weather. My family and I come here every year for vacation. We love the wine country and The City and everything it has to offer.”
Before & After
With a wholesome Donny & Marie veneer, Hershiser was one of the last guys you’re expect to be cast as a villain.
But early on, Giants fans had Orel pegged as part of the Dodgers weasel act.
In one of his first big league appearances, Hershiser pitched in relief against the Giants at Chavez Ravine on the night the Dodgers clinched the 1983 NL west (9/30/83).
The division title was finalized in mid-game when second place Atlanta lost at San Diego. As the Giants Darrell Evans stepped to the plate to face Fernando Valenzuela to lead off the 6th, the scoreboard announced the final from San Diego.
The game with the Giants was paused as a boisterous hullabaloo erupted in the Dodgers dugout.
With the outcome of the game vs. the Giants moot, Lasorda swiftly began swapping out key Dodgers from the lineup.
By the 7th inning Tommy had even removed himself from the game, hightailing it to the Dodgers clubhouse for a bulky wedge of sausage pizza and a full-blown celebratory shindig.
Rookie Hershiser who had been subbed in for Valenzuela, pitched the final two innings, earning a save in the 4-3 L.A. victory.
After the game, Giants manager Frank Robinson termed Lasorda, “the fat man” and ripped his opposite number’s contemptuous mid – game disappearing act.
“You see things and remember them,” said Robinson. “I don’t appreciate it. And I won’t forget it either.”
While Hershiser’s personal participation in that bit of arrogant theater was rather benign, he had officially been introduced into the long simmering rivalry. Without even knowing it, Orel was off and running as a long-term insufferable Dodgers bore.
Despite throwing a no-hitter in college and being named Pitcher of the Year in the Mid-American Conference, Hershiser was just a 17th round draft pick out of Ohio’s Bowling Green University by the Dodgers in 1979.
Though other clubs soon regretted not drafting him sooner, Hershiser was far from a finished project upon reaching L.A.
Lasorda fretted that Hershiser lacked a killer instinct and together with organizational pitching coach Dave Wallace worked diligently on his mound makeup. Lasorda in particular urged Hershiser to shelve his Mr. Rogers persona during games.
For emphasis, Lasorda rebranded the milquetoast right-hander, the “Bulldog.”
Hershiser received his first ever SFPD protective detail in 1985 after he drilled the Giants Mike Krukow (hand) and Dan Gladden (back) on successive pitches.
“They were great,” Hershiser drolly said of his armed guides on the the long hike from the visitors dugout to the Candlestick showers (8/18/85). “We’re walking out there and the (cop) says ‘watch out for the bottles.’”
For the next decade Orel would be a thorn in the Giants side, and not just for just for his unbearable personality.
Hershiser consistently pitched his best against San Francisco.
The two time All-Star recorded more career wins (22) and strikeouts (194) vs. the Giants than he did against any other single club.
In 1988, Hershiser fired-up baseball’s hottest pitching streak ever when he threw 59.1 consecutive scoreless innings – setting a new record.
Hershiser was everything and a Dodger Dog in ‘88. He led the NL in wins (23), complete games (15), and shutouts (8), to go with a 2.26 ERA. He was the obvious choice for the NL Cy Young Award. He also bagged MLB Major League Player of the Year and NL Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News. For good measure he also took home a Gold Glove for the trophy case and was selected as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year.
His spellbinding shutout streak was Hershiser’s career tour de force, but it was not without controversy.
Naturally, the dissension occurred in a contest vs. San Francisco.
Hershiser took the mound on a Friday night at Candlestick Park (9/24/88) with 40 consecutive shutout innings in his rear view mirror and 18.1 innings shy of fellow Dodger Don Drysdale’s all-time record.
After the Giants went down routinely in the first two innings, S.F. got something brewing in the 3rd. With one out, Jose Uribe stood on third and Brett Butler at first. Ernest Riles shot a grounder to second baseman Steve Sax who shoveled to shortstop Alfredo Griffin to force Butler. Griffin pivoted awkwardly however, and his relay sailed out of the reach of first baseman Tracy Woodson. Uribe scored on the play. The scoreless streak was snapped.
Or was it?
Second base umpire Paul Runge said, ‘not so fast.’ He ruled Butler veered from the base path, forcing Griffin’s wayward toss. The ump declared Riles out at first. Inning over. Scoreless streak still intact.
Hershiser pitched near perfect ball the rest of the game, allowing no runner past second and winning 3-0. It was Orel’s fifth straight shutout.
Afterwards, Hershiser conceded the umpire let him off the hook.
“The governor visited me in the third,” Hershiser quipped. “I got off the electric chair. I ran off that mound. I wanted to get off that field as soon as possible before they changed their minds.”
Giants manager Roger Craig meanwhile groused: “I wonder if Runge would have called it like that if Hershiser didn’t have the record going.”
In his next start, Hershiser would bypass Drysdale with an astonishing 10 innings of shutout ball. He still holds the all-time record with 59.1 blank frames.
The Dodgers would go on to win the ‘88 NL NLCS (New York Mets) and World Series (Oakland). A phenomenally dominant Hershiser was named MVP of both series, combining to post a 3-0 record and 1.06 ERA in five overall postseason games.
Hershiser’s pitching preeminence began to wane at the dawn of the 1990s, but he was still usually on his game when facing the the Orange & Black.
In the Giants 103-win ‘93 season, Hershiser handed S.F. its worst defeat of the campaign and the club’s most lopsided loss since 1975, as “Bulldog” led the Dodgers to a 15-1 mashing at Candlestick, with a complete game, five hitter (7/27/93).
After a middling performance in the strike-shortened 1994 season, Hershiser would leave the Dodgers and put his rivalry with the Giants on the back burner to sign with Cleveland of all teams.
It was a genius move. For the next three seasons, Hershiser rebuilt his game and helped turn the historically dismal “Mistake by the Lake” Indians into a winning outfit. The Tribe would capture the AL Central in each of Orel’s three seasons in Cleveland, reaching the World Series twice in 1995 and 1997, before bowing to Atlanta and Florida respectively.
After going a very impressive 45-21, 4.21 in his three-year C-Town residency, Hershiser, now 39, expressed a desire to return to the NL West and specifically to a California based club.
Hershiser rejected San Diego’s advances and cut-short talks of a Dodgers reboot. Just like the mysterious fog that would shroud his new apartment building for the upcoming baseball season, Hershiser curiously choose the “City by the Bay.”
He Never Had a (Giants) Bobblehead Day. But…
Though he heard some jeers and boos during his home opening day start (bold move by manager Dusty Baker), Hershiser’s early decision to proclaim his love for San Francisco seemed to do wonders for his reception in the City.
Orel and his family choose to live within the boundaries of San Francisco, setting up household on Nob Hill. Toe-headed 10-year-old Jordan Hershiser, even got into the act, regularly joining his pops as Giants batboy at the ‘Stick.
“Gosh, the response by the Giants fans has been so wonderful. The controversy seems more hype than reality” Orel insisted. “When I sign autographs or meet people on the street, it’s like ‘so glad to have you. This is great.’”
Pitching-wise, Hershiser took a little time to get rolling as he dropped his first three S.F. decisions.
Hershiser finally hit paydirt in his ninth Giants starting assignment when he tossed two-hit ball over eight shut-out innings at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
“I’m done pledging,” a relieved Hershiser said after securing his first Giants “W” in the 3-0 victory. “It was time for me to become a Giant. Losing was eating at me.”
A confident Hershiser had his sea legs (one Orange, one Black) and reeled off six consecutive wins. The pitcher’s move to the rival Giants became a national feel-good story when Hershiser was named May’s NL pitcher of the month after going 5-0, with a 0.86 ERA.
But the day everyone was waiting for had yet to come. It finally arrived on Friday night, July 3. Before a Candlestick Park crowd of nearly 60,000, Hershiser found himself facing the Dodgers for the first time ever.
It also marked the first time that Hershiser would pitch in a game at the ‘Stick that involved the Dodgers in which he was not the subject ridicule and derision.
Talk about flipping the script.
On that night, for the first and the last time ever, a guy named Orel was the most popular Giant in the house.
Hershiser spread four hits over seven innings as the Giants squeezed past Los Angeles 6-3.
After the game Hershiser initially down played any emotional entanglement that came with facing his former team.
“Victories are fun period, it doesn’t matter who it’s against,” he claimed in a jubilant Giants dressing room. “The fact it was the Dodgers made it nicer, but not to the point of rubbing it in.”
But Stan Javier who had three hits in the win, let out a guffaw upon catching wind of Hershiser’s humbleness.
“He’s lying,” said the Giants outfielder, himself a former Dodger, told the Sacramento Bee. “(Orel) was crying after the game.”
Hershiser finally copped.
“It was emotionally interesting to go through,” he admitted. “I wouldn’t look into their dugout. I didn’t want to get into an emotional journey. The crowd was awesome, they helped me get through it.
“I’ve been away from L.A. for three years now. There have been so many changes, it’s not the same team anymore. I’m a Giant now and I’d like to be for a long time.”
Hershiser’s would face the Dodgers twice more as a Giant, both times at Dodger Stadium. He split two decisions.
Overall as a Giant, Hershiser performed as advertised, going 11-10, 4.41 in a team high 34 starts. After 162 games the Giants and Cubs were tied for the NL’s lone wild card slot. But, the Giants dropped a special one game tie breaker at the Windy City.
Both Hershiser and the Giants expressed a desire for the now 40-year-old pitcher to return in 1999, but they could not agree on a deal in the limited window of time they were allowed to negotiate.
Hershiser went on to play for the Mets in 1999 before closing the curtain on his celebrated career, back with the Dodgers in 2000. The plan was for Hershiser to go out triumphantly as a Dodger at age 41.
How would Giants fans respond to Hershiser this time around in Dodger Blue?
While he had proven his loyalty to the Orange & Black in his one season in San Francisco, Hershiser once again was transplanted into Dodgers colors.
But on the other hand, Candlestick Park was now humanely shuttered for baseball.
With Giants games now being played at beautiful new Pac Bell Park. Would a more genteel Giants clientele go easier on Orel?
Alas, we never found out.
Hershiser did not match up with the Giants in an abbreviated Dodgers reunion. The plug was pulled early on his ‘00 homecoming after Hershiser went 1-5, with a ghastly 13.14 ERA.