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Rearmed and Dangerous : Indians Put Orel Hershiser on Their Most-Wanted List and He Hasn't Let Them Down

June 21, 1995|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CLEVELAND — Orel Hershiser goes to the mound against the Boston Red Sox tonight carrying what he calls a gift.

It's wrapped in his reconstructed right shoulder, the ability "to pitch as well as I did prior to the [1990] surgery," he said, wearing the red of the Cleveland Indians instead of the blue of the Dodgers.

Velocity. Movement. Breaking ball.

It's all there, said Hershiser, who is 5-2 with a 3.54 earned-run average in this era of five-plus ERAs. He also has struck out 43 and walked only 17 in 68 2/3 innings.

"I never thought I'd reach this level again," he said. "I couldn't help thinking the other day that I have a chance to make the All-Star team again, to win 18 to 20 games again. I mean, my pitches are crisp enough. It's just a matter of executing consistently.

"It's a tremendous blessing and very exciting to feel like I'm 28 and never had surgery. I try to tell myself not to get too excited because I don't want it to disappear. It's like when you have something special and want it to remain your own secret."

It's hard to keep such a secret in a place where a national apathy toward baseball has been overwhelmed by the hunger for a winner.

The Indians are averaging more than 39,000 a game and will play to capacity crowds at spectacular Jacobs Field over the rest of a season in which they are demolishing the American League's Central Division.

They are doing it with a powerful offense--the strongest he has seen, Hershiser said--that is averaging almost six runs a game and leads the major leagues in virtually every category.

They are also doing it with an unsung and rebuilt pitching staff that leads the league in ERA and fewest hits and walks allowed. It feeds, to a large extent, off the poise and professionalism of the Hershiser, 36, who got a no-decision in his last start despite giving up only two runs in seven innings against the New York Yankees, and Dennis Martinez, 40, who is 6-0 with a 2.55 ERA.

"It's strange. I came here as a veteran guy, but I'm sixth or seventh on the depth chart," Hershiser said of a roster that includes Dave Winfield, 43; Eddie Murray, 39; Bud Black and Tony Pena, 37, and Martinez, the man known as "El Presidente" in Nicaragua.

"With guys like Winfield, Murray and Dennis around, I don't have to be the graybeard who calms the younger guys down," Hershiser said. "I'm more like their reserve help. There's just a lot of respect for the older guys here because of the way we're still contributing."

Said pitching coach Mark Wiley, "Orel and Dennis look at pitching as their profession. They're very serious about it and self-motivated. They take care of themselves and go through certain training routines to make sure they're ready. That's why they've been able to play for so long.

"It's good for young players to see that. They have a perspective on how to handle stress and pressure. They know it's not the end of the world if they have one bad inning or outing."

Amid the labor mess of last fall and winter, when few could be sure who would be a free agent and who wouldn't, the Indians targeted Hershiser early, General Manager John Hart said.

"He fit the profile we were looking for," Hart said, identifying that as a veteran right-hander with character and competitiveness, a proven winner who could still win.

"Our interest never wavered," Hart said. "There were hundreds of possible bodies out there, but Orel knew he was clearly the guy we wanted."

And Hershiser knew early that the Dodgers no longer wanted him, despite his 16 years with the organization, despite double-figure victory totals in all eight of his full major league seasons, despite that memorable summer of 1988, when he was 23-8, set a record with 59 consecutive scoreless innings and led the underdog Dodgers to a World Series victory, and despite his total of 22 wins in 1992 and '93 as he came back from the surgery.

Hershiser, making $3 million a year in his final contract with the Dodgers, said it was largely a business decision, but that ability obviously played into it. He went 6-6 with a 3.79 ERA in the strike-shortened season.

"If I had just won the Cy Young award, I'd still be there," he said. "But I was prepared for any scenario and took it in stride.

"The Dodgers' philosophy has long been that they'd rather get rid of a player two years early than two years late. I didn't expect them to change that for me and I don't look back and say they let me go because of this or that and so I'll draw on that as a source of motivation. I don't look back with any bitter feelings. Nor do I have gut-wrenching thoughts about missing the old organization.

"I miss my friends, but I have new friends and new horizons, and I think that, on a worldly basis, I'm a more rounded person to have experienced another team and another league. I'm better prepared for what lies ahead after baseball."

After baseball? Hershiser now thinks he may have four or five years left. He feels that positive about his current form.

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