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Shouldering a Heavy Burden : Dodgers' Hershiser Describes Fear, Pain of Road Back to Mound Tonight

May 29, 1991|OREL HERSHISER and BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I always wanted to push, to move to a heavier weight, and Pat was always forced to hold me back for my own good. I would say, "Why? Why can't I do more if I feel ready?"

Realizing that I was competing against myself because I had no one else, Pat would flatly tell me no, that he knew what was best for me. And that was that.

Sometimes, of course, my body would tell me no. I could not lift an important weight. I could not fully extend an important muscle. During these times I would pray, right there in the weight room.

"God, what are You trying to tell me? This arm doesn't feel like it can throw 90 m.p.h.? What is happening, God?"

Once again, I would hear the phrase, "Patience." Through all of this I have realized a more personal meaning of the Bible passage that speaks on your faith being tested by fire. About hard times purifying your character the way fire purifies gold. You don't know how strong you are, or how much you live for Him and depend on Him, until that fire surrounds you.

Finally, I started throwing a ball on July 28. I threw exactly 30 feet. It felt so good to have the ball back in my hand and to be throwing. It was so simple, yet so precious. I felt the fire subsiding.

I started throwing off a mound Sept. 20, another milestone. After working throughout the winter, I finally faced a hitter in a batting practice on Feb. 11.

This was just before spring training. And it felt good enough to convince me that I could be ready for the beginning of the season.

Pat would not even listen to me talk about it. And I wouldn't dare talk about it with anybody else. But deep down, I wanted to start this season with the team so bad, my arm twitched every time I thought about it. And after throwing several good simulated games during the spring, I was on schedule for such an appearance.

But then . . . the Lord wasn't finished with me yet. On March 15, in my last simulated game before I would pitch an exhibition game, my arm suddenly felt like it was April of 1990. It happened on a Friday. I have since dubbed the day, "Black Friday."

After just a couple of innings I was tired, and I ached. I was throwing the ball like a man who had just undergone surgery on the wrong arm. My good friend Mickey Hatcher was one of the major leaguers who was batting against me, and he was racking me for hits, and something terrible was happening in my mind.

For the first time, I truly believed I would never pitch again. As I threw to Hatcher, I thought, well, this is pretty neat, he will be the last guy to face me in my last professional appearance. I was done. I was sure of it.

Home opener? I left the field thinking I would be lucky if I could ever use my right arm to open a door.

I hurried home and called Jamie in California. "This is it, I'm finished," I told her for the millionth time. "I will not pitch again."

Because Pat and I could never talk or even look negative at the ballpark--you never know who is watching or listening--I waited until I got to my spring home to pour out my feelings to him. And pour, I did.

We talked for more than an hour on the phone, me about retirement, Pat about resilience. Pat kept saying that he and Dr. Jobe had expected such a setback, and that now maybe I would get on a regular schedule. I thought about it, I prayed about it and I prayed about it some more.

Finally, after sitting up all night with my good friend Jim Rhodes, who was visiting from California, I finally agreed with Pat. God was saying, "Get off your time schedule and get on mine!" I stopped thinking about my own problems and started thinking about His plan.

What a plan it has turned out to be!

I took two weeks off from throwing, and before I knew it, I was pitching in my first minor league rehabilitation start in Bakersfield May 15. It had been two months since Black Friday, but I felt so strong, it seemed like two years.

Not that the prospects of taking the mound again didn't make me nervous. During the first two innings in Bakersfield, I sweated so much, I went through more towels than after one of my 30-minute showers. Between innings, I would knock over water cups and put my jacket on inside out. Those poor Class-A kids just stared at me like I was from Mars.

But then I heard the words again: "Patience." I calmed down, allowed only two hits, and here I am, ready to take the mound tonight in what will be the most emotional start of my career.

I no longer have to just dream it. I can do it. I can walk down that tunnel at Dodger Stadium and tip my cap to Dr. Jobe, and recognize Pat Screnar, and say my prayers . . . and then I can pitch. And hey, I'm going to pitch. I don't know what's out there, but I'm excited to see what God has planned for me next . . . as crazy as His plans can be.

After tonight's game, somehow, I am going to glorify God like I glorified him in 1988, when I made a statement to the world that you don't have to be a wimp to be a Christian. This is even if the results on the mound are less than what I've hoped for.

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