by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

CLEVELAND — He was pitching for everyone who ever got a little old, a little paunchy, anyone whose boss ever came to him and said, “We’re going in another direction.” For 12 seasons Orel Hershiser, gave his heart, soul and body parts to the LA Dodgers, he won them a world championship, he won them endless awards, he won them fans and filled their coffers with gold. He was loved by the media and loved by the community — and it made no difference. None whatsoever. When he turned 36, and only pitched one complete game all season, the front office suits came down and said, “Thanks, Orel. We’re going in another direction.”

He could have said good-bye, of course. He could have retired, rather than move his family, learn new teammates, pack it all up and try someplace else. But, given his talent, and what he knew he had inside, that would not have made sense. And Orel Hershiser IV, the son of a printer, the father of two sons, the owner of one of the best post-season records in the history of baseball, is nothing if not a sensible guy. So he found a team with the hitting to match his pitching and he pulled on its uniform and dreamed of one more October.

And here it was. One for the old guys. What Hershiser was asked to do Thursday night was nothing less than save the Indians’ season, keep the miracle lights burning, get the team to the airport, where they could take their unlikely story to Atlanta for Game 6 of the World Series. Hershiser was not only being asked to stop the suddenly hot Atlanta bats, but to outduel the Uber-Pitcher, the Michael Jordan of baseball, the best in the business and soon-to-be-four-time Cy Young Award winner, Greg Maddux.

“No problem,” Orel said.

One for the old guys. One mean dog

“Orel is the best I’ve ever seen at being able to focus,” Mike Hargrove, the Indians manager, would say when this was all over. Well. When you look like Howdy Doody, and your nickname is “Bulldog,” you are obviously more than what you seem. Hershiser on Thursday was more than a 37-year-old pitcher looking for a last crack at glory. He was the white knight of Jacobs Field. He came to the mound all business, and he ignored the music and the flashbulbs and the explosions over the loudspeakers. He finished the first inning by striking out Fred McGriff, the Atlanta clean-up hitter, with a pitch that dropped so beautifully, if it were a submarine, radar would have missed it.

The crowd roared. Hershiser was on his way. And the baseball post-season saw its pulse rate jump. Hershiser got the the next six batters in order. He struck out McGriff again, looking, he struck out David Justice, one of Game 3’s heroes. He kept pitching and pitching and biting his lip as he came off the mound, trying to look tough, which is a little like Alfred E. Neuman trying to look like a general.

Never mind. For while Hershiser was mowing them down, a funny thing was happening to Maddux. He tripped. Oh, he looked good, but not great, Albert Belle stung him in the first inning for a two-run blast, and in the fifth inning, three Cleveland batters whacked the stuffing out of his pitches. You could see he was slowing down. Hershiser could see it, too. He knew if he could just do his part, the powerful Cleveland bats could get to Maddux and they all would be going to Atlanta for the weekend.

And sure enough, that is what happened. In the sixth inning, with two men on, a kid named Jim Thome stepped in against the mighty Maddux. Thome is a solid third baseman, but hardly a household name. A few years ago he was playing Triple-A ball. Now he was in the World Series, two men on, with two strikes. When Maddux has two strikes on you, in most cases, you can forget it, he owns you. Maybe he thought he owned Thome. But this is the kind of thing that happens in October. Thomas laced a pitch up the middle, a good, clean, hard single, and the Indians had the lead for good. Moment of truth

“It was an unbelievable game” Hershiser would say when this was all over, when he had outlasted Maddux and won the duel, final score 5-4, the Indians still alive, the World Series still unfinished. Maddux had gone seven innings, surrendered four runs; Hershiser lasted eight innings, gave up just two. “All the emotions I had to keep inside all day,” he said, “they’re starting to come out now.”

Let them flow. Why hold back now? Hershiser has now won eight post-season games and lost just one, that one being Game 1 of this Series, against, of course, Maddux. Hershiser took himself out of that game when he felt he lost his control. Critics questioned the decision. “Tonight I was gung ho all the way,” Hershiser said. “If they asked me how I felt, they were going to have to make the decision.”

There was a play in the eighth inning, with Atlanta threatening, a man on, Hershiser beginning to tire. Marquis Grissom, dangerous all series, whacked a pitch “as hard as you can hit a line drive,” Bobby Cox said. But Hershiser stabbed it, one-handed, between his legs, and then, because he never loses he cool, he spun to first, threw a bullet, and doubled up Mike Mordecai, who was diving to the bag. The ump signaled “out.” Mordecai dropped to his knees. And Hershiser allowed a shriek of emotion. The irony was as bright as the lights above Jacobs Field. It was a young man’s play. The old man made it.

One for the old guys. Maybe in Los Angeles they’re scratching their heads. Maybe they’re thinking, “Why’d we give up on this guy.”

Let them think it. Orel has decided, as they say, to go in another direction.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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