To get from the Baltimore Orioles' bullpen to the pitcher's mound at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a pitcher must descend five stairs, step through a door that opens onto the field through the center field fence and walk exactly 349 1/2 feet from the wall to the mound. It is a walk Jesse Orosco knows well. He has made it more often than any pitcher in the history of the stadium. And one day very soon, Orosco hopes to open that door and walk straight into history.
Orosco, the Orioles' 42-year-old left-handed relief pitcher, stands two games shy of matching Dennis Eckersley's all-time record of 1,071 games pitched in a career. For Orosco, the record represents validation of a 20-year career spent mostly in the relative obscurity of middle relief--those innings between the starting pitcher and the closer.
"Maybe," he said, "my name has a chance to stay around a while."
In a sport obsessed with milestones and records--just last week, play was stopped three times for celebrations heralding the 500th career home run of St. Louis's Mark McGwire and the 3,000th career hits for San Diego's Tony Gwynn and Tampa Bay's Wade Boggs--the record Orosco is chasing is far less glamorous. It represents "durability, longevity, resilience, consistency," as Orosco puts it--not unlike Cal Ripken's record of 2,632 consecutive games played, which nonetheless received baseball's full ceremonial treatment.
"This record is an incredible achievement," Orioles closer Mike Timlin said. "Even though he and I don't pitch the same way, and we don't throw with the same hand, I look up to him. He is the consummate relief pitcher."
Orosco would like to break Eckersley's 10-month-old record at Camden Yards, where he has pitched the last five seasons and where the fans would be more appreciative, rather than in the unfamiliar surroundings of Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field or Cleveland's Jacobs Field, where the Orioles go next before coming home Aug. 17. And he has made his feelings known to Ray Miller, the Orioles' manager.
The only problem is, holding Orosco out of action so he can break the record at home goes against everything Orosco has come to represent. His career has been built on being available nearly every game when the call comes to the bullpen.
Even though the Orioles are no longer in playoff contention, Miller has said he will use Orosco in any situation where it would help the Orioles win games, even if it means Orosco breaks the record this week on the road. "You get in trouble," Miller said, "if you try to make something like that [record] happen. I won't [keep him out] at the expense of losing."
A Matter of Record The record Orosco is chasing was set last season when Eckersley pitched in his 1,071st game on the final day of the 1998 season, breaking by one the record set by Hoyt Wilhelm, a knuckleball pitcher from the previous generation.
Wilhelm is enshrined in baseball's Hall of Fame. Eckersley, whose 24-year career ended the same day he broke Wilhem's record, is almost certain to be elected to the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible.
Orosco, on the other hand, does not have Hall-of-Fame credentials.
His statistics will not get him into the Hall of Fame, or make fans consider him one of the great pitchers of all time. Of his 1,069 pitching appearances in the major leagues over 20 years, his record is 84-75 with a 3.03 earned run average and 140 saves.
His career has taken him from the New York Mets to the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Cleveland Indians to the Milwaukee Brewers and finally to the Orioles in 1995. There have been highlights in his career--he was named to two all-star teams (1983 and 1984), set a record by winning three games in the 1986 National League Championship Series and was on the mound for the Mets for the final out of the 1986 World Series.
Unlike Eckersley, who was a starting pitcher in the first half of his career, Orosco has only four starts among his 1,069 games. Also unlike Eckersley, Orosco did not make his biggest mark as a closer. Orosco was the Mets' closer during the mid-1980s, but found his niche in middle relief.
In the end, Orosco's biggest mark on the game may have been helping usher in the era of specialization. For the last 10 years or so, Orosco has had one primary title, left-handed set-up man, with one primary job: to enter a game on any given night, sometimes three nights in a row, for the sole purpose of retiring one or two left-handed batters late in the game.
"I'm aware that it doesn't seem like very glamorous work," Orosco said. "But it really plays an important role in the game. There's a great demand for set-up men, so you can get to the ninth inning for your closer."
"He's a specialist. That's what the game has come to," Orioles bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks said. "He knows what his job is. Being a reliever might be the toughest job in baseball because when you come in, you have to stop a team from scoring."
Orosco's first appearance came on Opening Day of the 1979 season. The Mets were at Chicago's Wrigley Field and were leading 9-3 in the ninth inning. The bases were loaded and the Cubs' Bill Buckner was at the plate, a tense situation for a rookie pitcher making his major league debut. "I'm glad I didn't realize what the game was all about back then," Orosco said with a laugh. But he got Buckner to fly out to right field to end the game. One batter, one out, a job completed, a career begun.
The key to Orosco's longevity is in his resilient left arm. He has never had an arm injury and never been on the disabled list. According to Hendricks, Orosco is capable of pitching four days in a row in an emergency situation. Whereas most pitchers take about 20 pitches to get ready in the bullpen, and some, such as Baltimore's Arthur Rhodes, take from 25 to 30, Orosco needs only 10.
"He's a phenomenon," Hendricks said. "His arm is always in shape. He has a resilient arm that bounces back. . . . Over the last two years his velocity has actually increased--at age 42. He was throwing between 86 and 88 [mph] a few years ago. But last year, he started hitting 92 on a given day. I thought the reading had to be wrong. But it wasn't."
How long can Orosco keep going? Wilhelm pitched until he was 49, Eckersley until he was 44. Orosco will turn 43 the third week of next season. He signed a contract last August that goes through the 2000 season, and the Orioles hold an option for 2001, which will automatically vest if Orosco has 55 appearances in 2000. He has averaged nearly 68 appearances per year since coming to Baltimore.
There was a point early this season when Hendricks thought Orosco's career might be at its end. Orosco could no longer throw strikes consistently. Worse, the left-handed batters he was entrusted to get out instead were blistering him.
"When guys reach a certain age, they can lose it at any time," Hendricks said. "I thought it was that time for Jesse."
Orosco said he never even considered the thought of retirement this season. And eventually, he rediscovered the strike zone and began making the lefties look silly again, like the Orosco of old. He has retired 18 of the last 20 batters he has faced.
"My arm," he said, "still feels fantastic."
Those left-handed hitters he faces keep getting younger, and the left-handed relief pitchers entering the majors keep throwing harder. But Orosco remembers the last time he thought he might be too old to do this job. He was with Cleveland, and the Indians made it clear they were going to reduce Orosco's role and try some younger lefties in his place. Orosco contemplated retirement, but decided to give it until the end of the year. That was in 1991--8 years, 2 teams and some 500 appearances ago.
Career appearance No. 1,069 came Sunday afternoon at Camden Yards. It was vintage Orosco. Facing Detroit Tigers first baseman Tony Clark, a switch hitter, in the eighth inning of a tied game, Orosco threw a fastball for a strike, then retired Clark on a fly ball to right. That was all. Two pitches, one out, another job completed, another game pitched.
Jesse Orosco is two away from the all-time record for games pitched.
The Top 10
Dennis Eckersley 1,071
Hoyt Wilhelm 1,070
Jesse Orosco 1,069
Kent Tekulve 1,050
Lee Smith 1,022
Rich Gossage 1,002
Lindy McDaniel 987
Rollie Fingers 944
Gene Garber 931
Cy Young 906
Orosco has pitched in more games as a reliever than anyone else in history.
Jesse Orosco 1,065
Kent Tekulve 1,050
Hoyt Wilhelm 1,018
Lee Smith 1,016
Rich Gossage 965
Gene Garber 922
Lindy McDaniel 913
Rollie Fingers 907
Sparky Lyle 899
Jeff Reardon 880
W-L - Innings - ERA - Saves
84-75 - 1,207 1/3 - 3.03 - 140
Sources: Major League Baseball, Orioles