Armed for history

Baseball: Jesse Orosco has seen both glory and frustration in a 19-year career, but, overall, he has endured, and the reward is imminent: the all-time record for games pitched.

August 06, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Within the same clubhouse, one player started 2,632 consecutive games and is one swing removed from 400 home runs. The bench coach is one of only three hitters to compile 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. The most accomplished designated hitter in history is in the house.

But if a record falls in middle relief, does it make a noise?

Jesse Orosco will be listening.

In a summer devoted to what Cal Ripken calls baseball's "big, round numbers," Orosco is approaching one of the game's most understated but imposing records.

The 42-year-old left-hander needs only four appearances to break Dennis Eckersley's 10-month-old record of 1,071 games by a pitcher.

Baseball Weekly devoted this week's cover to the pursuit of 3,000 hits by Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs and the disabled Ripken, and 500 home runs by Mark McGwire. ESPN is celebrating the countdown with cutaways to each player's at-bats. And, oh, Orosco threw four pitches for Wednesday's final out in Game 1,068.

"I think in the kind of role I play, people tend to lose a person like myself," Orosco said. "They don't see me out there getting 30 or 40 saves a year or putting 12 or 15 wins on the board.

"That's become the game of baseball: looking at who hits the home run or who gets the save. We're kind of lost in the shuffle as middle men. But we know it's an important job."

Orosco's 19-year career includes a 30-save season (1984), two All-Star berths, a record three wins in the same postseason series (1986 ALCS), two World Series saves and throwing the last pitch in the New York Mets' clincher over the Boston Red Sox in the '86 World Series. Now, in middle relief, it offers him recognition as the most prolific pitcher in the game's history.

"Sure, the record's a motivator," said Orosco, who entered the current homestand looking to improve his season, which began horribly but includes an active run that has seen him retire 17 of 19 batters faced in his last 11 appearances.

Orosco has been scored upon in only two of his last 25 appearances. "You feel good that you've been able to pitch this long. I'm still doing it, I'm still enjoying myself. I'm reaching a goal that stood for a long time. The fact that I've gone almost 19 years and never been on the disabled list I'm proud of that probably more than anything."

There is no single route to Orosco's approaching destination, as proven by Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm and Kent Tekulve -- the three men he has tracked the last two seasons.

Wilhelm became the first reliever inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985, but only after persevering against the prejudices facing a knuckleball pitcher.

A 29-year-old rookie with the New York Giants in 1952, Wilhelm led the National League in winning percentage (.833) and ERA (2.43), becoming the only first-year player ever to win an ERA title. He qualified after pitching a staggering 159 1/3 innings in 71 relief appearances. In six seasons, Wilhelm, a closer, averaged more than two innings per appearance.

(Before retiring at 49, Wilhelm played parts of five seasons with the Orioles, for whom he made 43 of his 52 career starts.)

Tekulve never made a start in 1,050 career appearances that spanned 16 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs. When he retired after the 1989 season, the sidewinding Tekulve had outdistanced Wilhelm by 32 relief appearances, but remained 20 behind him in total games.

At the time, Orosco had made 492 career relief appearances -- 518 appearances total -- and had not yet begun to project his place in history.

"I guess it hit me about '95, when I got my 700th game," Orosco remembered.

There may never again be a hybrid such as Eckersley, the slender, long-haired flamboyant pitcher who often lapsed into his own language and who crafted Hall of Fame credentials during a 24-year career in which he was traded four times, went on the disabled list four times, started 359 of his first 376 appearances and resurrected himself from alcoholism.

Packaged by the Chicago Cubs to the Oakland A's in an otherwise forgettable five-player trade on the eve of the 1987 season, Eckersley was quickly converted into a reliever by manager Tony LaRussa. His ascendance as the game's dominant reliever coincided with the A's rise as its dominant team.

After his 32nd birthday, Eckersley saved 387 games, walked a total of seven batters over consecutive seasons and compiled an astounding 0.61 ERA in 1990 while converting 48 saves.

Eckersley eclipsed Wilhelm's all-time appearance record on the last day of last season with Orosco sitting in the Fenway Park visitors' bullpen.

"I'm coming after you," Orosco said jokingly to Eckersley before that day's game.

Approached more recently, Orosco added: "I haven't gone into any games thinking I'm 34 away, I'm 26 away, I'm 18 away now. I just try to do the best I can on the field. If I stay healthy, it's going to happen."

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