Card Orosco talks of trumping Wilhelm

August 03, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

KANSAS CITY — KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Jesse Orosco has never met Hoyt Wilhelm, the all-time leader in games pitched. But he talks to the Hall of Famer in a way that Cal Ripken never did to Lou Gehrig.

"I found his baseball card about two or three years ago when I got up to 700-750 games," Orosco said. "I kept the card in my house. Kidding around, I'd say, 'I'm coming after ya.' "

To the card?

"To the card," the left-hander said, nodding. "I'd look at the card and say, 'Hoyt, I'm coming after you, pal.' Just as a fun thing. It inspires me to see what he did. I figure, 'Hey, I've come this far, I'll continue on.' "

And so he does, at the age of 41, in his 19th major-league season. Orosco recently became the sixth major-leaguer to pitch in 1,000 games. But an even bigger milestone lies ahead -- Wilhelm's record of 1,070 appearances.

Does Orosco want it?

He's talking to baseball cards, isn't he?

"It's within reach," he said.

Indeed, Orosco needs only 68 appearances to tie Wilhelm, and he should get there by late next season.

One problem:

Dennis Eckersley stands in the way.

"He's right on the record," Orosco said. "He needs a couple of more to pass [Kent] Tekulve."

Eckersley's 1,048 appearances are two fewer than Tekulve, 22 fewer than Wilhelm and 46 more than Orosco. But it's doubtful that he will break Wilhelm's record this season, and after that he is expected to retire.

Orosco is in much better position to catch Wilhelm -- he needs to pitch in only nine more games this season to reach 55 appearances and guarantee his Orioles contract for 1999.

Still, he openly frets about Eckersley, rattling off the future Hall of Famer's other major accomplishments -- his 20-win season, his no-hitter, his 195 career victories and American League record 324 saves.

"It's just another stat to him," Orosco said. "To me, it's my only stat."

Eckersley, good-natured as ever, seems willing to concede the record.

"Let him have it," he told the Boston Globe's Gordon Edes, laughing. "I'm not going to get it, anyway."

Orosco almost certainly will if he stays healthy, a reasonable expectation for a pitcher who began his major-league career in 1979, and has never been on the disabled list.

"It's incredible," Orioles pitching coach Mike Flanagan said. "Wilhelm was a knuckleballer. Jesse still relies on speed, still throws the ball 90 mph, which is amazing.

"Granted, it's a little bit different than Rip's [consecutive-games] streak. But Jesse has played longer than Rip. And he never technically has missed a game."

Mike Mussina notes that Orosco pitched during the Jimmy Carter administration. Think Sidney Ponson remembers Orosco's major-league debut? The rookie was all of 2 years old.

Yet, nearly two decades later, Orosco remains one of the game's top left-handed relievers. Several teams contacted the Orioles about acquiring him before the July 31 trade deadline, only to be told no.

Orosco is 4-1 with a 2.54 ERA and six saves this season. He has allowed only one run in his past 19 appearances. Opponents have batted only .150 against him with runners in scoring position.

Sixty-eight more appearances? Orosco set a career high with 71 last season. He's on pace for 67 this season, and seems capable of pitching into the next century.

"My concern is, how far can I go?" Orosco said. "I've never been hurt before. The first time I get hurt could be the whole start of things."

True enough, but Orosco is a conditioning freak, lifting weights four times a week and running, always running. As with Ripken, teammates marvel at his durability.

"He's blessed, that's all I can say," said Orioles left-hander Jimmy Key, who has made six trips to the DL in his 15-year career.

"Obviously, he hasn't thrown as many innings as a starter would have thrown. But with the wear-and-tear on his arm in the bullpen, up and down, in and out of games, it's a major accomplishment.

"Very few people can play five years without being on the DL, much less as long as he has. He's just been blessed with a durable arm."

Still, it helps that Orosco has worked almost exclusively as a reliever, moving into a highly specialized role later in his career. He has never pitched more than 110 innings in a season.

Eckersley, by contrast, has worked 3,269 innings, almost three times as many as Orosco's 1,166. He started 361 games earlier his career.

Wilhelm also started, but far less frequently than Eckersley. Thirty-nine of his 52 career starts came as a member of the Orioles from 1958 to '62. He threw the team's first no-hitter, against the Yankees at Memorial Stadium.

"I've had four starts in my career -- that tells you how good a starter I was," Orosco said.

When were they?

"Two in '79, two in '82."

His record?


He was a left-handed closer for the Mets, saving Game 7 of the 1986 World Series. But he has spent the bulk of his career in middle-inning and setup roles, rarely drawing recognition.

Now, he is in position not just to break Wilhelm's record, but also Tekulve's mark of 1,050 relief appearances -- Orosco is just 52 games short.

The records might not get Orosco elected to the Hall of Fame, but they would validate him, distinguish him, make his career that much more memorable.

"You old man, you still playing?" Tekulve asked Orosco during a visit to Camden Yards last season.

"Yeah," Orosco replied. "And I'm coming after you, pal."

Pub Date: 8/03/98

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