Why Orel Hershiser’s 1988 feats should be remembered forever

He’ll be 65 soon, his hair is graying, he hasn’t officially pitched a baseball for nearly a quarter of a century.

And, still, everyone calls him Bulldog.

He’s been a Dodger broadcaster almost as long as he was a Dodger pitcher. Young fans look at his spindly frame sitting across from Joe Davis and are like, “He did what?

And, still, everyone calls him Bulldog.

Orel Hershiser may age, and his accomplishments may fade, but what happened 35 years ago has cemented the most unlikely of nicknames.

Bulldog then. Bulldog forever.

“That’s certainly the default gift,” Hershiser said this week with a laugh. “I’ve got bulldog paperweights, bulldog bobbleheads, bulldog statues, bulldog socks, bulldog underwear.”

Come Saturday at Dodger Stadium, he will now also have a Bulldog plaque, as he will be inducted into the Legends of Dodger Baseball. The honor is one given to those Dodger greats who haven’t been voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame, a place Hershiser might have inhabited if he did not completely sacrifice his body for the sake of a championship in 1988. He literally left it all on the field, taxing his shoulder and eventually shortening his career during a stretch worthy of another nickname.

“For two months, Orel was Superman,” Dodger historian Mark Langill said. “What he accomplished, the timing, the drama, it was just unfathomable.”

Yet with time, it has increasingly been overlooked, Hershiser shrouded in Dodger history by the greatness of Sandy Koufax and Clayton Kershaw, shadowed in Dodger culture by the impact of Fernando Valenzuela, and lost in the 1988 championship memories by the home run of Kirk Gibson.

”Sometimes when you meet families, the kid looks at me and he’s like, ‘Dad, why am I getting this guy’s autograph?’ But then, sometimes the kid knows,” Hershiser said. “I don’t regret if somebody doesn’t remember something. I’m humbled if they do and if not, I’m on to the next thing.”

Perhaps, then, this is a good time to pause and summon the memories of this glorious Bulldog thing, this stretch of madness that set an unbreakable record and captured the team’s last full-season title.

A quick recount:

  • Hershiser finished the 1988 season with a 59-inning scoreless streak, breaking a 20-year-old record held by former Dodger Don Drysdale while setting a mark that hasn’t been approached since.
  • Hershiser carried the Dodgers to an upset of the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series by recording a 1.09 ERA in three starts while also recording a save in Game 4. And, oh yeah, he threw a complete game shutout in Game 7.
  • Hershiser led the Dodgers to another giant upset in their World Series victory over the Oakland Athletics, throwing two complete games and winning both while allowing all of two runs.
  • Hershiser won the Cy Young award, the NLCS MVP, and the World Series MVP
Former Dodger Orel Hershiser throws a pitch

Former Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser throws out the first pitch before Game 5 of the 2018 World Series.

(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

“People forget, what he did was on the scale of Fernandomania,” Langill said. “For two months he went out of his mind.”

It wasn’t just what he did, it was how he did it, with equal parts grace and grit, with no concern for his well-being, bleeding all sorts of blue. He didn’t just live up to the moniker bestowed on him by then-manager Tommy Lasorda. He became it.

“If you love the game, that love is blind,” Hershiser said. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, your career can be at risk.’ I was thinking, I can do this, and I can do it again, I need to always be available. That’s what my parents taught me, that’s what the history of this franchise taught me, Sandy (Koufax) and Don (Drysdale), guys who always pitched.”

The scoreless streak began with the last four innings Aug. 30 in Montreal and covered seven games, the first six being nine-inning complete games and the record-breaker occurring in a memorable 10-inning stint in San Diego.

Do you want to know how crazy that is? He had more complete games during that short stretch than the entire Dodgers pitching staff has had since the 2018 season.

“I’ve watched a couple of innings from those games a couple of times, and it was surreal,” Hershiser said. “Once I picked up the phone and called Tommy and said, ‘How could you not have taken me out? I would have taken me out!’”

The Dodgers scored only 17 runs for him during those seven games. He struck out only 10 batters total in the final three games of the streak. He stranded 36 runners during the streak. He did it the hard way, no pomp, no circumstance, just Bulldog.

“You look back at it like, yeah, it probably did cut your career short,” said Hershiser, who had shoulder surgery two seasons later. “But it was how our generation was taught. You just went for it.”

Oh, how he went for it. You want even more crazy? Counting that postseason, he allowed just five earned runs in his final 101 innings.

“What he did is on the Dodgers’ Mt. Rushmore,” Langill said.

There is always a controversial play in these sorts of streaks, and this one occurred against the San Francisco Giants on Sept. 23, when a Giants run was nullified after Brett Butler was called out for interfering with shortstop Alfredo Griffin on an attempted double-play throw to first base.

Hershiser immediately ran off the field shouting, “Dick Dietz, Dick Dietz!” as an homage to a similar moment in a similar stretch.

Twenty years earlier, the Drysdale streak seemingly came to an end when he hit the Giants’ Dietz with the bases loaded. But it was ruled that Dietz made no effort to avoid the pitch, so Drysdale was given another chance and survived.

“So here I am yelling, ‘Dick Dietz’ and my teammates are looking at me like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Hershiser said. “Everybody in the dugout thought I was crazy except Tommy. He was the only one who remembered. Thank goodness for Tommy.”

Hershiser also honored Drysdale on the night in San Diego when he broke the record. In a game so nondescript it wasn’t even on local Los Angeles television, Hershiser had pitched nine scoreless innings amid a 0-0 tie and was faced with a dilemma.

Does he pitch the 10th strictly to set the record, or does he back down to leave it as a tie between Drysdale and himself?

As nutty as it sounds, Hershiser begged not to pitch, telling Lasorda he would rather share the record with Drysdale.

“Don was my mentor and my friend, and I thought it would be perfect for us to share space at the top,” Hershiser recalled.

Lasorda responded that Hershiser had lost his mind and promptly sent him out there to break the record, which he did, followed by a rare in-game appearance on Dodger radio.

The dugout interview was conducted, incidentally, by broadcaster Don Drysdale.

“It turned out to be the perfect night,” Hershiser said.

But he wasn’t done being perfect. If one counts the postseason, his record should be 67 innings, as he threw eight scoreless innings against the Mets in Game 1 of the NLCS.

His most memorable moment in the series came in Game 4, on a night when closer Jay Howell was suspended for using pine tar, when Hershier stood up in the clubhouse and announced, “I’m gonna be Jay Howell.”

Lasorda refused to allow it — Hershiser had just thrown seven innings a day earlier — but the Bulldog sneaked down to the bullpen and warmed up and once the game reached the 12th inning, Lasorda had no choice.

Earlier in the game Lasorda had told his coaches that he wanted God to strike him dead if he used Hershiser. As he walked to the mound to summon Hershiser into the game, he looked to the sky and shouted, “Hey God, just kidding!”

Hershiers threw three pitches to save the 12-inning victory, then was virtually unhittable the rest of the postseason as he ended it jumping into Rick Dempsey’s arms after one more complete game victory in Oakland.

Rick Dempsey lifts Orel Hershiser in celebration at the conclusion of the 1988 World Series. Franklin Stubbs is on the right.

Rick Dempsey lifts Orel Hershiser in celebration at the conclusion of the 1988 World Series. Franklin Stubbs is on the right.

(Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Los Angeles Times)

“You couldn’t have scripted what happened any better,” Langill said. “Orel created the perfect storm.”

The epilogue was more storm than perfect.

Hershiser left the Dodgers seven years later when he felt they low-balled him during contract negotiations. After spending time with the Cleveland Indians, San Francisco Giants and New York Mets, he returned to the Dodgers in 2000 for one last ride. It lasted six starts, his 41-year-old body no longer able to work that magic as he went 1-5 with a 13.14 ERA before being released.

Today he works alongside Joe Davis broadcasting games for Spectrum SportsNet LA while spending his offseasons playing lots of poker at his permanent home in Las Vegas.

“I like that I can compete while sitting on my butt,” he said.

He has left the Dodgers twice before, but he’s not leaving them again.

“I want to be a Dodger the rest of my life,” he said. “If my skills were ever at a level where I would embarrass myself and the organization on the air, I wouldn’t want to do that job anymore, but I still want to be around the team and be part of things.”

Back in 2000 when Lasorda came down to the clubhouse to tell him his career was finished, both men wept. Then when Hershiser planned a celebratory retirement news conference, the media got wind of it, broke the story before he could announce it, and he wound up leaving the team via a conference call.

He never got his party.

Saturday night will be that party.

Dressed in a suit, surrounded by Dodger royalty, he will eloquently address the crowd as Orel, but don’t be fooled.

Bulldog then. Bulldog forever.