POMPANO BEACH, Fla. — Sooner or later in this business you start making excuses for athletes. They spit at you, they mumble into a microphone, they stick little spoons up their noses and tell you to bleep off when you ask about it. So you tell yourself lies. “They’re under a lot of pressure,” you say. “Their talent excuses their behavior.” It’s an ice bag for your conscience, a sports writer’s way of convincing himself he’s not spending the best years of his life with a bunch of jerks. And then along comes Orel Hershiser to put things into perspective. Just when you figure every player is

entitled to one drug bust a year, this kid with the goofy name blows in, a gust of wonderful, and after five minutes you want to take him to every locker and say, “Look! This is what I was talking about! A decent man! Is this so hard?” Let’s talk about a guy who doesn’t use cocaine, doesn’t curse and doesn’t praise the Lord every five seconds. Let’s talk about a man who makes a million a year but still rushes home to play with his son, a man who comes across like Richie Cunningham and yet led his team to within two games of the World Series last year and arguably possesses the best curveball in the major leagues.

Let’s talk about Orel Hershiser IV, baseball pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers.

No prison number after his name, either. He has talent — and heart There may have been a time when you expected ball players to look like Orel Hershiser. But maybe not. Those glasses. That mouthful of teeth. That lanky, soda-pop body of his, so unexpected that a reporter walked by him three times Tuesday, figuring he must be a clubhouse helper. “You Orel?” the reporter finally asked.

“Uh huh,” he said.

“Um . . . got a minute?”

Some question. Last year, Hershiser was knocked out early in a game that went into extra innings. When it finally ended, after four hours, the reporters trudged into the clubhouse and found Hershiser sitting by his locker. “Why are you still here?” someone asked. “I figured you guys might need me,” he said.

Typical. When Hershiser won his $1 million salary arbitration case last month — he was on a plane when the news came through — he didn’t call for a party. He stayed around and shook hands with the entire crowd at the airport, the new millionaire, while other players walked by too busy to be bothered.

Often the most giving athletes are the ones with the least talent. Hershiser is the exception. He has the statistics of a superstar — 30-11 in two years, a career 2.33 ERA — but there is a heart alongside that wicked right arm, and it outshines the auras of Valenzuela, Marshall, Lasorda and all the other glitzy Dodgers.

Before a game against San Diego last summer, Hershiser was playing with his infant son when the child fell off the bed and broke his collarbone. Hershiser came to the park and pitched, because that is his job. He won. And in the clubhouse afterward, he broke down and cried.

That wasn’t for the cameras. Nothing he does is, although he is delightful to interview, a trait that frustrates some prima- donna teammates.
“Sometimes the other guys rib me when they see me ease through a tough interview,” he says. “They say, ‘You should have aired that guy out! You should have called him a blankety blank-blank or something.’ “

A blankety blank-blank?

“But that’s not my personality. If I put myself in a reporter’s shoes, I know he may have to ask some dumb questions. If I put myself in a fan’s shoes, I know what it’s like to wait around for an autograph. So even if they ask me while I’m warming up — which may be stupid — I don’t yell. I just say, ‘Can we do it later?’ ” Not that hard to be polite This spring, Hershiser hopes he’s over his biggest problem — being in awe of his fellow major leaguers. “Lasorda says I pitch to everyone like they’re Lou Gehrig,” he says. And he laughs.

Hershiser wasn’t raised on a mission — he grew up in suburban Detroit (his elementary school years were spent in Southfield) and New Jersey. He doesn’t have wings and a halo. He doesn’t eat special foods.

You hear him say he understands the temptations of having a lot of money. You hear him say he stays out of trouble “by not frequenting places where I can get into trouble.” You hear him say he wants to be a role model for kids.

You hear this, and first you think “what a miracle!” And then you rethink and you say, he’s right. It isn’t that hard to be polite. It isn’t that hard to treat people with a morsel of decency. You can have a soul and a fastball.

And then you wonder why it’s so difficult for so many other athletes.

CUTLINE Orel Hershiser

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