9: The Sermon on the Mound

9: The Sermon on the Mound

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

The Sermon on the Mound

The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.

~William James

My heart sank. The last person I wanted to see right then was Tommy Lasorda. What could he want? I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. In fact, with a 2-2 record and a 6.20 earned run average, I was pretty sure I didn’t.

But Ron Perranoski was the boss. When the pitching coach tells you the skipper wants to see you in his office, you don’t stand around wondering what to do. “What does Tommy want, Perry?” I asked. I hoped against hope it didn’t mean a trip back to the minor leagues.

“He’ll let you know.”

Uh-oh. “You goin’ with me?”

“I’m invited, just like you. That’s how Tommy works, you know. He wouldn’t tell you anything without me there.”

“Well, that’s good. I guess. I hope.”

It was early May 1984, during my first full year in the big leagues, and I was a Los Angeles Dodger relief pitcher trying to hang on for dear life. I couldn’t get anything going, couldn’t maintain any consistency. I might get a guy or even two guys out, then I’d get too fine, too careful, and walk somebody. Tommy hated two-out walks. Almost as much as he hated two-out runs. And two-out runs too often followed my two-out walks.

I’d get even more careful, and before you knew it, someone had doubled up the alley. I’d be yanked, aired out for not doing what I was paid to do, and then I’d sit, wondering what was happening to my brief career.

As a rookie, I was pretty much a non-entity with the Dodgers. I didn’t have that casual relationship with the coaches that the veterans did. I wasn’t consulted about strategy. Nobody cared what I thought was the right pitch in a specific situation. If I offered an opinion, it might just as likely be ignored as disputed. I was proving on the mound that I couldn’t execute the pitches, even if I knew what they should be. Everyone said I had potential, the most frustrating label any player can have. I’d been hearing that since the day I signed.

Because I was young and looked younger, and because I was thin and wore glasses, and because I was known as a Christian athlete, I got the feeling people assumed I had no guts. Hershiser was too passive, too nice, too mellow to get the job done.

I was intimidated by Tommy Lasorda. Loud and brash and a real veteran baseball man, he was a manager any player would want behind him. He could be an encourager, but I didn’t know where I stood. I feared I was on the bubble. There had to be guys in triple-A who could do better than I was doing.

And now he wanted to see me and my pitching coach. What could that mean? What could he want? Perry wasn’t saying much. Did that mean he didn’t know? Or worse, that he did know? Though the walk to Tommy’s office seemed to take forever, I wished we hadn’t arrived so soon. This was like being sent to the principal’s office, but the stakes were much higher. I’d sure rather stay after school than be shipped back to Albuquerque.

Perry knocked, and Tommy waved us in. My mouth was dry, and I noticed Tommy wasn’t smiling. He pointed to a couple of chairs, and Perry and I sat down. Tommy sat on the edge of his desk and looked down at me. I didn’t take my eyes off him, and if I blinked I wasn’t aware of it. I was prepared to agree with whatever he said, no matter what. I wondered if he could hear my heart.

“I invited you here with Ronnie because I never talk to a player without his individual coach present.”

“Yes, sir, I know. I appreciate...”

He continued as if I hadn’t said anything. “I wanted to talk to you about your game, the use of your ability, your mental approach to pitching.”

I nodded.

“You remember how mad I was about how you pitched to Cruz the other day against Houston...”

I nodded again. Did I ever. It was one of those two-out situations with two men on. Jose Cruz was a great contact hitter, a dangerous RBI (runs batted in) man.

“You throw low and away, ball one. Low and away, ball two. Low and away, ball three. He’s takin’ and you finally get a strike over, luckily, ‘cause that one could’a been called low or outside, either one. He knows you can’t afford to walk him, so he’s sittin’ on your three and one pitch, and what do you do?”

I didn’t want to think about it, and I sure didn’t want to talk about it. The worst thing was, Tommy was getting himself upset all over again just rehashing it. He grew louder. His face reddened. He leaned closer.

“You laid the ball in for him! Boom! Double and two runs! Hershiser, you’re givin’ these hitters too much credit! You’re tellin’ yourself, ‘If I throw this ball over the plate, they’re gonna hit it out.’ That is a negative approach to pitching!”

I knew. I felt small and young and stupid. Sitting there nodding, I finally knew what he thought of me. My worst fears had been confirmed. I was hopeless. And, if it was possible, Tommy was getting louder. He was in my face now, those eyes bulging, his cheeks crimson. Sweat broke out on my forehead and the back of my neck. I didn’t dare move even to wipe it off.

“You don’t believe in yourself! You’re scared to pitch in the big leagues! Who do you think these hitters are, Babe Ruth? Ruth’s dead! You’ve got good stuff. If you didn’t, I wouldn’t have brought you up. Quit bein’ so careful! Go after the hitter! Get ahead in the count! Don’t be so fine with him and then find yourself forced to lay one in!”

As he sped on, louder and louder, something registered with me. Was that more than an airing out I just heard? Did a compliment slip by, disguised as a tongue lashing? I’ve got good stuff? He believes that?

Tommy continued, “If I could get a heart surgeon in here, I’d have him open my chest and take out my heart, open your chest and take out your heart, and then I’d have him give you my heart! You’d be in the Hall of Fame! If I had your stuff, I’d a been in the Hall of Fame!

“I’ve seen guys come and go, son, and you’ve got it! You gotta go out there and do it on the mound! Take charge! Make ‘em hit your best stuff! Be aggressive. Be a bulldog out there. That’s gonna be your new name: Bulldog. You know, when we bring you in in the ninth to face Dale Murphy and he hears, ‘Now pitching, Orel Hershiser,’ man, he can’t wait till you get there! But if he hears, ‘Now pitching, Bulldog Hershiser,’ he’s thinkin’, Oh, no, who’s that!? Murphy’s gonna be scared to death!”

We’re nose to nose now, and I could use a towel on my face, but I don’t even swallow, let alone move. “I want you, starting today, to believe you are the best pitcher in baseball. I want you to look at that hitter and say, ‘There’s no way you can ever hit me.’ You gotta believe you are superior to the hitter and that you can get anybody out who walks up there. Quit givin’ the hitter so much credit. You’re better than these guys.”

Part of me resented anyone thinking that I needed a nickname to make me tough and aggressive. No question I had not learned a proper approach to pitching. But I didn’t think I needed a new name to make me stronger. Still, I couldn’t get over that Tommy Lasorda felt I was worth this much time and effort. It hurt to hear him say what he said, but beneath it there had been a foundation of confidence in me. He believed I had more than potential. He believed I had big league stuff.

He was right that I had been treating big-league hitters in a special way. I believed they had special ability. Which they did. What Tommy was telling me was that so did I. I wasn’t some minor-leaguer who had lucked his way up to the big club because it was a thin year for pitchers. I belonged on that mound just as much as the hitter belonged in the box.

Two days later against the San Francisco Giants the Dodgers needed a reliever in a difficult situation. The bullpen was full of tired, sore-armed pitchers, me included. The call came, “Can anybody down there pitch?”

I volunteered, despite a tender elbow and an arm weak from overwork. I strode to the mound reminding myself what a pleasant surprise it had been to learn that Tommy believed in me, thought I was special, needed me, thought I would be successful with an adjustment in my approach. I didn’t know what I could do with my arm and elbow in the shape they were in, but my attitude was finally right.

From the dugout Tommy hollered, “C’mon, Bulldog! You can do it, Bulldog! You’re my man, Bulldog!”

I challenged the hitters, kept the ball low, got ahead in the count on nearly every batter. In three innings, my arm feeling like a rag, I gave up only one run. Tommy’s talk had worked. (He calls it his “Sermon on the Mound” and says he wishes he had taped it. “It’d sell a million, Bulldog!”)

With my performance against San Francisco, I became a believer. I told myself that if I could do that when my arm felt terrible, think what I could do when I felt great. I still didn’t like the nickname (I still don’t), and I was still chagrined that anyone thought I needed it. But that day I became a big-league pitcher. My attitude was revolutionized. I believed I deserved to be there, competing with big leaguers because I was a big leaguer. (The legendary Branch Rickey once said, “A big-leaguer is a minor-leaguer with a chance to play there.”)

I learned years later that assigning a nickname to a player was Tommy’s unofficial way of welcoming him to the big leagues. Until you showed him you could compete at that level, you were called by your given name. Franklin Stubbs was just Stubbs until Tommy decided he was worthy of a nickname. Then he became Cadillac. Mike Marshall was just Marshall until Tommy christened him Moose. Neither Tommy nor I knew then that he was right and that I could succeed at this level. But within two months, we had more to go on.

An injury to Jerry Reuss thrust me into a start on May 26th. I joined the starting rotation for good June 29th against the Chicago Cubs, when I began the longest consecutive scoreless inning streak in the National League that year (332/3 innings). I pitched four shutouts in July alone (and was named Pitcher of the Month), tied for the league lead in shutouts for the year, and finished third in ERA (earned run average), sixth in complete games, and eighth in strikeouts. I was third in Rookie of the Year voting.

My game had become focused. And the concentration, motivated by the confidence Tommy instilled in me, remains a key to my success today. Do you wonder how a pitcher could have had a 1988 like I had? Do you wonder how we Dodgers could have been motivated to maintain our intensity all through the season and the post-season, in spite of injuries and setbacks? We owe a lot of it to Tommy, of course, because he is a true motivator, encourager, cheerleader.

Knowing he believed in us allowed us to focus our energy, to eliminate distractions, to major on the fundamentals that outweigh everything, no matter what the task or pursuit. I benefited from realizing that there was too much to think about, too many variables, too many distractions if a pitcher tried to stay on top of every nuance of the game all the time. In my mind I narrowed my emphasis and priority to one thing and one thing only: the pitch.

~Orel Hershiser
Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan’s Soul

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