Quick! What do you picture when you think about Spring Training?
If you’re anything like me, the list includes …
Palm trees and blue skies.
Warm-up jackets and warming temperatures.
Your favorite team trying to knock the rust off a long winter.
Old players in new places.
Old players in old places, trying to comeback.
Superstars trying to hold onto their perch.
All of these and plenty more are likely to flood your brain every time talk turns to the spring camps. But maybe more than anything, the overarching theme of spring in general and Spring Training in particular is renewal and new beginnings.
And nothing says “new beginnings” more than all the young guys around MLB trying to make their marks and crack a Big League roster. Card collectors are luckier than most in this regard because we’ve often had an early preview, courtesy of our cardboard, of the young dudes who might someday be diamond kings (or Diamond Kings) but who today are just a few strands of peach fuzz removed from home cooking.
With that thought percolating in my mind I knew I had to include a card of one of these young-looking players when I set out my 2019 Spring Training Baseball Card Challenge, so I’m here on Day 40 to discuss just such a pasteboard.
To figure out which specific card I wanted to profile, I went all the way back to the beginning … of my own hobby days, which means roughly 1983. In the spring of that year, I was just starting to eye the dusty stacks of 1981 and 1982 baseball cards I had stashed in a dark corner of my room, thinking they might be something worth thumbing through after all. By that fall, I’d be all-in, but not before a summer of discovery.
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At about the same time I was debating my cardboard future, one of those would-be Major Leaguers was trying his darnedest to crack the vaunted Los Angeles Dodgers rotation. Even though L.A. had finished second in the old National League West to Dale Murphy and his Atlanta Braves in 1982, they were still the Dodgers, after all. And they still had Fernando Valenzuela, Jerry Reuss, Bob Welch, and Burt Hooton for the rotation, joined by 24-year-old Alejandro Pena.
So it wasn’t too surprising that another 24-year-old, Orel Hershiser, found the going tough that spring and eventually found himself back in Triple-A with the Albuquerque Dukes. It was his second go-round in the mountains after climbing the Dodgers farm system one rung a year from 1979 through 1982.
Within a couple of seasons, of course, everyone would know about the “late-blooming” Hershiser, who led the Dodgers into the National League Championship Series with an incredible 19-3 record and 2.03 ERA in 1985.
The folks who were really paying attention before that, though — and most Dodgers fans — already knew Orel was on his way, finally. After an eight-game stint in the L.A. bullpen at the end of 1983, he went 11-8, 2.66 in ’84 to land third in NL Rookie of the Year voting (behind Dwight Gooden and Juan Samuel).
And, though, he didn’t garner an MLB card until his breakout summer of 1985, Hershiser did land a couple of minor league issues on his way up.
In 1982, he was card number 4 in the TCMA Albuquerque Dukes set. It’s a card any Hershiser collector would love to own, but the shot is far enough away, and grainy enough, that it’s hard to get a good look at the Bulldog.
In 1983, though, his return engagement in the same set gives us our first cardboard look at the choirboy who carved up Major League hitters for the better part of two decades — despite his late start.
There on card number 3, Hershiser kneels in the grass with a minor league outfield wall behind him. He has his mitted left hand on his knee, his right hand gripping a ball and hanging over his thigh. And young Orel peers out from under his read and yellow Dukes hat with the Richie Cunningham mug that he would carry into his forties and on to a 204-150 record.
Exactly how old does Hershiser look on his 1983 TCMA card?
You’ll have to make that determination for yourself, but younger than 24 in my eyes.
And much younger than I’ve felt in a long time.
But no matter how old he looks, he also looks … timeless.
Check out the entire series of 2019 Spring Training Challenge posts here.