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Old Faithful

Dodgers' Orosco, 45, Is Going Strong in 24th Season in Majors

April 21, 2002|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Heard the one about Dodger reliever Jesse Orosco being so old his rookie card was a cave drawing? Or that Abner Doubleday was his first manager? Or that....

"Yeah, I've probably heard them all by now," said Orosco, who turns 45 today. "The guys like to joke around about how old I am, and now everybody's having fun with the idea that I'm going to play until I'm 50.

"It doesn't bother me at all because it's all in good fun. They're joking about me still being in the big leagues, and I'm glad I'm still around so they can joke about it. Besides, it's true. I am old."

The major leagues' oldest player is still getting the job done, relying on his seemingly ageless left arm while adding to baseball's all-time appearance record and surprising doubters. Orosco is a key member of the Dodger bullpen 23 years after making his major league debut for the New York Mets in 1979, educating and inspiring impressed teammates, including some young enough to be his son.

He has faced many fathers and their sons, recalling encounters with Bobby and Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr. and Bob, Bret and Aaron Boone. Such is life for a pitcher born when the Dodgers still played at Ebbets Field who is the only player this season eligible to start collecting his pension while receiving a salary.

Orosco acknowledges he's an old story, but the Dodgers said it's still good reading.

"Let me tell you something about Jesse Orosco," Manager Jim Tracy, 46, said recently. "I know how old this man is, and I know age is something people like to focus on, but it doesn't mean anything in the context of what this individual does on the baseball field for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"When you hand him the ball and you look in his eyes, and we're talking about a guy in year No. 23 in the big leagues, you still see the fire, you still see the passion and the desire to want to compete. Other people can focus on age or whatever they want to, I choose to look at what Jesse Orosco does on the field."

Retiring left-handed batters is what the left-handed specialist still does best. Left-handers are batting .182 against Orosco this season and .219 since 1989. Orosco has recovered from 2000 elbow surgery and it shows.

"Jesse has just been throwing great," catcher Paul Lo Duca said. "His slider and cutter are moving all over the place in the [strike] zone, and his fastball has been hitting 87, 88 [mph] consistently. He really didn't have his good fastball last year after the surgery, but he does now and it makes a big difference

"It's great to watch him work because he knows exactly what he wants to do. He has so much experience and he's been in just about every situation you can think of. Everybody respects him so much and learns from him. I know I do."

Orosco and 39-year-old teammate Terry Mulholland are proof there's always room for lefties, though it's not that simple. Orosco did not reach the majors' exclusive 40-year, four-decade club by simply being a one-trick wonder.

He repeatedly displays his mettle by thriving in tense late-inning situations, winning where younger, harder throwers fail. Orosco's mind is as much a part of his arsenal as his deceptive fastball, late-breaking slider and sharp cutter, helping him gain the trust of skeptical managers en route to a record 1,138 appearances.

Orosco has outlasted many decision-makers who told him he was washed up long ago, reveling in every moment of the unexpectedly long ride.

The key to his longevity?

"Well, one time on the [disabled list] in 23 years doesn't hurt," said Orosco, drafted in 1978 by the Minnesota Twins and traded to the Mets in 1979 . "Consistency is the most important thing in this game, and I've been there, just about every day, for my whole career.

"I've had my share of ups and downs just like anybody, but overall I've had more success than failure. As time went on, I started learning more and more about hitters and what they're thinking. I don't have an answer for everything, but I've learned a little bit over the years."

Alan Meersand, Orosco's agent since he was drafted out of Santa Barbara City College, said conditioning is the biggest factor.

"His work ethic and his diet have been important," he said. "I knew he would have a good career, but you never expect anybody to play 23 years in the big leagues. You expect a guy to have some type of break down, but he keeps himself in great shape.

"He went on the [disabled list] for the first time in his career in 2000. And that's something for someone who threw the way he did, because you have to remember he was a big-time closer."

Orosco, widely remembered for throwing his glove in the air after recording the final out in the Mets' World Series-clinching Game 7 victory over the Boston Red Sox in 1986, had a career-high 31 saves in 1984 and was selected to the National League All-Star team for the second consecutive season. He has 141 career saves and a record of 84-76 with a 3.04 earned-run average.

Eric Gagne is benefiting from Orosco's experience, receiving sage tutoring in his first year as a closer.

"Jesse has been a big help," said Gagne, off to a fast start in his new job. "He's giving me tips and things to watch out for and I'm just listening. It's good to have him around because he's been there before. He's already done this."

Orosco is enjoying his second season of his second stint with the team, having also earned a World Series ring as a member of the 1988 club. He and his wife, Leticia, live year round in San Diego with their three children, Jesse Jr., Natalia and Alyssa, and Orosco does not want to play far from home. Or much longer.

"I've taken care of my family well, we have a nice place to live, my kids are dressed well and they're getting a good education," Orosco said.

"Playing this game is a dream come true, and I've played it longer than I ever imagined I would, but eventually it ends for all of us."

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