MLB: How a skinny kid became Bulldog and pitched the best season in baseball history

Bryan Zarpentine
Bryan Zarpentine
Bryan Zarpentine
Contributor

A big part of reaching the big leagues and excelling once you get there is dealing with doubt. That could mean personal doubt that you have what it takes to make it or others doubting your abilities. Few players in baseball history better exemplify the ability to overcome doubt than Orel Hersheisher. As a tall but scrawny pitcher, Hersheisher faced critics every step of the way, only to become a Los Angeles Dodgers legend and have one of the single greatest seasons of any pitcher in baseball history.

Hersheisher grew up as a tall but rail-thin pitcher. With his meager frame, little was expected of him, so much so that he didn’t even make his high school’s varsity team until his junior year. He ended up with just a partial scholarship offer to pitch at Bowling Green, where he hardly saw the mound his first two years, in part because he was academically ineligible to pitch during his sophomore year.

This was the first time doubt crept into Hersheisher’s mind. He considered dropping out of school but ultimately decided against it. Hersheisher got his grades in order and added weight to his skinny frame, helping him throw his fastball 5 miles per hour faster. The result was an outstanding junior season, going 6-2 with a 2.26 ERA, that put him on the major league radar.

Unfortunately, big league teams still doubted that Hersheisher’s success in college would translate to the pros. The scouting report on him coming out of college said that his fastball was unimpressive, his control was lacking, he was throwing his curveball wrong, and that he was easily rattled, lacking the poise and makeup to pitch at the major league level.

Despite some success early in his minor league career, Hersheisher struggled to put that unflattering scouting report behind him. He once endured a stretch of seven innings in which he gave up 20 runs. Afterward, Hersheisher once again doubted himself and considered quitting, only to have his manager at the time talk him out of it.

Hersheisher was finally able to reach the big leagues, making a September cameo in 1983. He then made the Dodgers opening day roster in 1984 as the final man in the bullpen, often used as a long reliever. In the middle of one poor outing that season, Hersheisher was berated by Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, which had to have cast even more doubt in his mind. It was after that incident that Lasorda gave Hersheisher the nickname of Bulldog in an effort to make him tougher and more assertive on the mound.

“I wasn’t a very good pitcher when the nickname ‘Bulldog’ came to me. It came about during a very hard time in my career. … It was my attitude and my fear and my respect for a big league hitter that was getting in my way.”

Orel Hersheisher

Soon after getting his new nickname, Hersheisher was given a spot start because of an injury to Jerry Reuss. Hersheisher took the opportunity and ran with it. Between 1984 and 1987, he won 60 games and established himself as a key part of the Los Angeles rotation. All of that was merely build up to arguably the greatest season a pitcher has ever had.

In 1988, Hersheisher went 23-8 with a 2.26 ERA, pitching 15 complete games, including eight shutouts. He finished the season with 59 consecutive scoreless innings, breaking the record set by fellow Dodger Don Drysdale. But Hersheisher was just getting warmed up. In the NLCS that year, he started three games and saved another, pitching a shutout in the decisive Game 7. He then won two games during the World Series to help the Dodgers their sixth world championship.

His performance in 1988 made Hersheisher the unanimous Cy Young winner. He was also MVP of the NLCS and the World Series. To date, he is the only pitcher to ever win all three of those awards in the same year. Just for good measure, Hersheisher also won the Gold Glove that season, putting a cherry on top of a season that many would consider the best ever by a pitcher.

“I caught 16 pitchers who won the Cy Young Award and I never caught anyone who pitched like him that year. We knew when he was pitching that the game was over.”

Rick Dempsey

Naturally, that was the zenith of Hersheisher’s career. A torn labrum in 1990 led to shoulder reconstruction surgery, making him the first major league pitcher to undergo that procedure. He returned from the surgery and pitched for nearly a dozen more years. He never made another All-Star team, but he did win ALCS MVP with the Cleveland Indians in 1995, and Hersheisher continued to post numbers years after year that would make any big league pitcher proud.

Sadly, Hersheisher lasted just two years on the Hall of Fame ballot before failing to receive enough votes to remain eligible. For a pitcher with over 200 wins, over 2,000 strikeouts, and one magical season that included 59 consecutive scoreless innings, Hersheisher’s quick dismissal from the Hall of Fame is a great injustice. Nevertheless, Hersheisher has done more than enough to carve out a prominent spot in baseball history.

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