Hershiser's efforts paying dividends for Rangers

Originally Published: March 9, 2005
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN Insider

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Orel Hershiser isn't vain enough to think he's mastered this business of running a pitching staff, even if his team's performance last year served as evidence to the contrary. The Texas Rangers used 17 starters in 2004, played half their games in a pitcher's hellhole, and ranked fifth in the league with a 4.90 earned run average.

That's like William Hung winning American Idol – or Maurice Clarett nabbing an Olympic medal in the 100-meter sprint.

Kenny Rogers
Starting Pitcher
Texas Rangers
657 176 123 4.27 1664 964
The Texas staff returned this spring unburdened by expectations. No. 1 starter Kenny Rogers is 40 years old and can't reasonably expect 6.85 runs-per-game worth of support again this year. While Rangers fans clamored for the team to sign a Matt Clement or Odalis Perez over the winter, management responded with an $800,000, incentive-laden deal for Pedro Astacio, who might as well have been in the witness protection program the last two seasons.

But the pitching coach is undeterred. He's about to begin his fourth season in the job, and he's really getting the hang of it.

"This is the first year I really feel like a big-league coach," Hershiser said. "You know the difference between doing something and owning it? I think I really own it now. And that's given me confidence and a little more ease to do more of the subtle things."

Instead of watching stretching and drills at Texas' camp and reviewing the schedule in his head, Hershiser is now self-assured enough to sidle over to Astacio and begin a conversation that will lead to a better relationship down the road. Or he'll mosey over to Juan Dominguez and review a bunt play.

"Instead of having to manage the pitching staff, the schedule and the intricacies of being a coordinator, it's a little more on autopilot now," he said. "Because I've done it."

Certain truths are self-evident at the Orel Hershiser School of Pitching Mechanics and Self-Esteem Repair. Contrary to perception, Hershiser doesn't believe in cramming a two-seam sinking fastball down everybody's throat just because it helped him win 204 games and it's the pitch best suited for cozy Ameriquest Field.

Sure, the two-seamer helped turn Ryan Drese into a 14-win, 200-inning guy, and Ron Mahay and Doug Brocail incorporated it nicely into their repertoires. But Hershiser hasn't taught the pitch to closer Francisco Cordero or reliever Erasmo Ramirez, who relies on an 83-mph fastball and a changeup that the Rangers call "the crippler."

Hershiser also has an interesting slant on media relations. He can be very protective when one of his pitchers is maligned in print, and he's so hesitant to share inside dope, he'd be great at the Pentagon. Hershiser is so tight-lipped, he considers it a revelation when he admits that Chan Ho Park, who makes $13 million a year and is 14-18 with a 5.82 ERA since 2002, is actually competing for a job in the Texas rotation this spring.

"It's not my job to expose the pitchers, other than to compliment them," Hershiser said. "The last thing I want is for a guy to come down for his side work, and we have to spend 15 minutes going over an interview I did about him in the paper. Then he doesn't get anything out of it."

While Bob Gibson and Warren Spahn helped substantiate the notion that great pitchers don't make great pitching coaches, several good ones are thriving in the position these days. The Angels' Bud Black, San Francisco's Dave Righetti and Cincinnati's Don Gullett immediately spring to mind.

Hershiser's success is noteworthy because Arlington is to pitching what Baghdad is to vacation havens. Two years ago, Detroit went 43-119 and still finished with a better team ERA than the Rangers. Because Ameriquest can crush a pitcher's spirit (see: Chan Ho Park), the Rangers have focused on growing pitchers on the farm rather than spending big on free agents. Problem is, they haven't grown nearly enough.

This is the first year I really feel like a big-league coach. You know the difference between doing something and owning it? I think I really own it now. And that's given me confidence and a little more ease to do more of the subtle things.
Orel Hershiser
Until Thomas Diamond, John Danks and Texas' other top prospects are ready to contribute, the Rangers will try to take average talent and coach the heck out of it. It's a collaborative effort. Bullpen coach Mark Connor is the staff's quiet sage, and the Rangers are grooming John Wetteland for bigger things as a roving pitching instructor in the majors and the minors.

But talk to the Rangers' pitchers, and you get a sense that Hershiser is the emotional heart of the effort. The players know that Hershiser won 23 games and a Cy Young Award for the Dodgers in 1988, and followed up with a World Series MVP. Most are aware that he underwent shoulder surgery two years later that threatened to end his career. There's nothing like spell-binding highs and gut-wrenching lows to give a man credibility in the trenches.

"Anytime you're around a guy who's had that much success, you listen a little bit more than, say, with the guy who never played in the big leagues,'' said Chris Young, a 6-10 righty with a Princeton pedigree. "It doesn't mean he knows more, but he's been there and he's done it. He knows what it takes.''

Pitcher R.A. Dickey, asked to define Hershiser's contribution, calls him "irreplaceable.'' Last year Dickey got off to a 4-1 start, then hurt his back and won only two more games the rest of the way. Through it all, Hershiser provided encouragement and refrained from the ultimate coaching sin, paying attention only to players who are doing well. That's known in the business as being a "front-runner."

"He created a culture that allowed us to be ourselves, allowed us to grow and gain our own identity as a staff and as individuals,'' Dickey said. "That takes more than just tinkering with mechanics.

"Orel cares about you as an individual as well as a player. I don't know a lot of coaches who necessarily preach that. They might think it, but they don't preach it. Orel wears it on his sleeve, and it really opens up the lines of communication. It creates an atmosphere where you can learn and become exactly who you want to be.''

Texas general manager John Hart got to know Hershiser in the early 1990s when they were neighbors in Florida. They bonded on the golf course, where Hershiser, despite his bookish exterior and frail-looking physique, routinely drove the ball into the next area code.

The joke is that Hershiser the pitching coach plays a lot less golf than Hershiser the pitcher once did. He has too many things on his mind now, and he feels guilty when he's not devoting time to the betterment of his pitchers.

"Orel has a great desire to help everybody,'' Hart said. "He's like that sign on the Statue of Liberty: Give me your sick, your lame, your lazy – or whatever it is.''

For those who think Texas' pitching numbers were a fluke in 2004, Hershiser has a message: Spending money in December doesn't necessarily equate to victories in June.

"Not one of us in the meetings sat there and pounded the table and said, 'We need to go out and get somebody,' '' Hershiser said. "The reason is, you can't pound the table and say the $50 million alternative is going to be better than the $350,000 alternative.''

Although the Rangers would love to have Hershiser around to tutor Diamond, Danks and their other young arms for years to come, he's wary of being pigeonholed as a pitching guru. The Rangers offered him a long-term deal to stay in his current post, but he declined because he has aspirations to be a manager or a general manager someday.

Hart and manager Buck Showalter have helped Hershiser cultivate that dream. Hart allows him to sit in on organizational meetings, where the Rangers discuss everything from sponsorships to uniform design. And Hershiser is constantly picking Showalter's brain on managerial strategy. "It's like they're joined at the hip,'' Hart said.

What lies in the future for Hershiser? It'll be his call. If he can help the Rangers develop a reputation as a pitching organization, he's pretty much capable of anything.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" will be published later this spring by Rodale. Click here to preorder a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer