It was a weird baseball season -- like everything else in 2020 -- but the World Series is upon us. Game 1 between the favored Los Angeles Dodgers and the upstart Tampa Bay Rays takes place tonight.
Thank God, you might say. Come to think of it, that's literally what Dodgers ace Orel Hershiser said to himself on the mound 32 years ago tonight, as he pitched Los Angeles to a World Series championship. Although jocks often use (and misuse) Providence to psyche themselves up, Hershiser was an appealing figure. As a ballplayer, he performed best under pressure while attaining a level of excellence in 1988 rarely surpassed in the history of his sport. As a man, he not only walked the walk, as they say in the church, but he actually sang the song -- to Johnny Carson, no less.
With his slender build and choirboy countenance (the pitcher himself called it a "a young Opie of Mayberry look"), Orel Hershiser was nobody's idea of an intimidator on the baseball diamond. But athletic arrogance is an effective component of a major league pitcher's arsenal. Yes, one must throw hard to play professional baseball -- and have good control and a ball that moves in the strike zone -- but without self-confidence, a major league pitcher can only go so far.
As a young man, Hershiser was beset by self-doubt, which translated to a timidity on the field that coaches felt was holding him back. Then one day, he had a fateful encounter with an aggressive and belligerent human buzzsaw named Tommy Lasorda.
As a minor league pitcher in the 1950s, Lasorda had more heart than ability, but as a manager he was known for coaxing maximum effort out of his players whether they were supremely gifted athletes or grinders like himself. As Lasorda told Los Angeles Times sportswriter Bill Plaschke, he had learned in the minors that "a pat on a shoulder can be just as important as a kick in the butt." It's a nice sentiment, though Lasorda's best-known motivational technique was profane, high-decibel tirades against umpires, opposition players, and sometimes his own pitchers. Lasorda's rant against Dodgers reliever Doug Rau in the 1977 World Series is legendary. And in the 1988 World Series, which I'll eventually return to, Dodgers reliever Jesse Orosco walked the bases loaded only to be met on the mount by his angry manager. Lasorda prefaced his conference by asking Orosco, "What the f--- is wrong with you?"
Earlier in his own career, Orel Hershiser had come in for the full Lasorda treatment. In 1984, after watching Hershiser nibble at hitters, fall behind in the count, and then get hit hard, Lasorda confronted the 25-year-old pitcher. "I never saw a pitcher pitch as negatively as you," the skipper said. "You were saying to yourself, ‘I better not throw the ball there or he is going to hit it.' Instead, you should have been saying to yourself that you are going to throw the ball there and he ain't going to hit it!"
Lasorda also said that "Orel" was too nice a name to scare hitters and that from now on he'd call him "Bulldog." That's Lasorda's version, anyway. Other sources in Dodger-land confirm the "Bulldog" part, but they remember the incident a bit more colorfully: a red-faced Lasorda screaming at the pitcher while inches from his face, "Hershiser, you don't believe in your damn self! Hell, you've got big league stuff! Quit being so f------ nice to hitters!"
"If I could get a heart surgeon in here, I'd have him open up my chest and give you my heart," the manager added. With your pitching ability and my heart, you could be in the Hall of Fame. I want you, starting today, to believe you're the best pitcher in baseball. Take charge! Be a bulldog on the mound. That's going to be your new name, Bulldog!"
Whatever Lasorda's exact words, the lesson took. Other Dodgers began referring to the manager's pep talk as the "Sermon on the Mound." Hershiser never liked his nickname, but he did become a bulldog on the mound -- and more. Tenacious, sure, but by 1988 the pitcher was an artist. That year, Hershiser led the National League in wins, innings pitched, complete games, and shutouts.
He finished the season on a roll, too, giving up not a single earned run in the entire month of September -- 59 consecutive innings -- breaking the major league record set by another Dodgers righthander, Don Drysdale. Hershiser continued this unparalleled excellence in the postseason, leading his team over the New York Mets in the playoffs with quality starts in Games 1 and 3, a save in relief in Game 4 and another complete game shutout in Game 7.
He duplicated that feat in Game 2 of the World Series and then shut down the Oakland A's in the clinching Game 5, pitching all nine innings and giving up only four singles. The season ended with Hershiser winning the Cy Young Award and Gold Glove, Sporting News Player of the Year, along with the Most Valuable Player award in both the NLCS and the World Series. All in all, it was one of the most successful seasons by a pitcher in major league history.
Two evenings later, Hershiser was a guest on "The Tonight Show" when Johnny Carson asked what he had been saying in the dugout of Game 5 when the cameras caught him seemingly talking to himself. He wasn't talking, Hershiser explained. He was singing. This brought Carson to life, and the host encouraged the audience to urge the pitcher to sing for them. At first Hershiser demurred. Then he sang, a cappella, a few bars of the venerable Christian hymn called "The Doxology."
The audience loved it. Carson himself seemed slightly nonplused, but also moved. "That's very sweet," he said. He shouldn't have been surprised. Bulldogs can be sweet. Tough, too.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.