BOWLING GREEN — On the recent afternoon Bowling Green State University eliminated baseball, I tried to reach out to the program’s most prominent alum, hoping he may want to share his thoughts on the unfortunate news.
He did not.
“Orel is going to pass,” a Dodgers spokesman said.
I should have known better.
For decades, Orel Hershiser — the former Cy Young Award winner and current Dodgers broadcaster — has had a curious relationship with his alma mater, publicly wanting little to do with the school where he came of age in the late 1970s.
Why would that change now?
I bring this up not to ruffle any falcon feathers — I would just as soon let the sleeping Bulldog lie — but because many who have followed the alumni-driven push to save BG baseball have understandably asked: Where’s Orel?
When you think of the many other famous athletes who attended Bowling Green — from Olympic gold medalists (Dave Wottle and Scott Hamilton) to hockey hall of famers (Rob Blake and Ken Morrow) to late NBA legend Nate Thumond — you think of ambassadors proud of their connection to the university.
Then there’s Hershiser.
The 61-year-old Falcons legend appears to have left the college entirely in his rearview mirror, having neither returned to campus nor visited his old program in at least three decades despite many invitations.
In fact, it’s as if he took an eraser to his three seasons here. Of the 454 accounts Hershiser follows on Twitter, none are connected to Bowling Green.
That’s not a crime, of course, and none of this is to suggest he owes Bowling Green his time or public support. Or anything. He doesn’t.
Nor is to suggest he hasn’t privately contributed to the BG fundraiser. I can’t tell you. Donations are confidential.
It is all just …
“Very strange,” one BG source said.
So, what happened?
How did the good-guy ballplayer who became an eloquent and insightful TV analyst in retirement grow estranged from his alma mater?
Any explanation will have to be second hand, but several people close to Bowling Green said the decades-long rift stems from a flap over his academic standing at the university.
As the story goes, after Hershiser developed into a star for the Dodgers, the school offered its famed son an honorary degree. Hershiser — who still had a ways to go before graduating when he was selected by the Dodgers in the 17th round of the 1979 MLB draft — reputedly replied thanks but no thanks, saying he wanted a real degree instead. BG suggested he would have to earn it and the relationship changed.
A follow-up request to the Dodgers asking about this account went unanswered.
Whatever the reason, Hershiser remains out of the picture.
And that’s a shame.
Because, really, this should be a feel-good story.
In many ways, it still is.
At least at Bowling Green, where his underdog rise serves as an enduring reminder that with persistence and determination great things are possible.
Consider where he started.
Coming out of high school in Cherry Hill, N.J., Hershiser was a diamond in the deepest cut of rough. The bespectacled, broomstick of a right-hander had one scholarship offer.
It was a partial ride from BG, extended by Falcons coach Don Purvis on the recommendation of an old friend, Dallas Green, the longtime big league manager who was then the Phillies’ director of player development.
“I don’t want to be a hypocrite here. If you asked me the first time I saw Orel as a freshman, ‘Did you think he was a Cy Young Award winner? No, I’m not that smart,’” Purvis said the other day from his home in Florida. “But I’ll tell you exactly what I saw in year one and year two and year three that was unchanged, and that was this kid had a tremendously loose, free arm, He was so well coordinated and so smooth.”
Hershiser just had some growing to do.
His first two seasons, he dressed only for home games, and he let his frustration spill into the classroom. At one point during his freshman year, after splitting from his girlfriend, he remembers hitting what felt to a teenager like rock bottom.
“It might have been possible to survive the bad grades and the broken heart, but the real crusher was getting cut from the baseball team,” Hershiser wrote in his 2001 book, “Between the Lines: Nine Things Baseball Taught Me About Life.” “This was the reason I had gone to BG in the first place. It was what I’d lived for. No passing grades, no girlfriend, and no baseball. Miserable didn’t come close.”
So he bolted.
With no car of his own, he headed to the I-75 ramp off of Wooster Street and set off to hitchhike back to New Jersey.
“And with a face that looked more like Opie from Mayberry than Charles Manson, I had no trouble getting rides,” Hershiser wrote. “A mother with a car full of kids picked me up first. Brushing crackers and a couple of toys to the floor, I made a spot on the backseat.”
Next, he caught on with a trucker, a traveling salesman, and a young leadfoot in a nice car before, finally, the lark ended with a fender bender on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
It was then that Hershiser said aloud, “What am I doing?” As if his runaway wasn’t rash enough, his parents didn’t even live in New Jersey anymore. His father, Orel III, who ran a printing business, had recently moved the family to suburban Detroit.
Hershiser gulped down his pride and called his dad. He took a Greyhound to Detroit the next day.
“The boy on the bus to Michigan was not the man I wanted to be,” Hershiser wrote.
But from that low — a moment he called a “watershed” crossroads — his life turned. Hershiser began to commit himself, on and off the field. He filled out, too, adding 27 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame in between his sophomore and junior year. “After that I wasn’t just a tall drink of water anymore,” Hershiser told Sports Illustrated in 1986. “That took my fastball from about 79 miles per hour to 84, and suddenly I started to get more people out.”
Overnight, he became a star.
Hershiser went 6-2 with a 2.26 ERA for the Falcons in 1979, his season highlighted by a no-hitter against Kent State.
“He was one of the two or three best pitchers in the league,” said Purvis, who coached the Falcons from 1972 to 1982 and has remained friendly with Hershiser over the years. “He just kept getting better.”
You probably know the rest.
After leaving Bowling Green on good terms, Hershiser spent five seasons grinding in the minors, then kept at it until he was one of the biggest stars in baseball. In his magical 1988 season, he tossed a major league-record 59 consecutive scoreless innings, captured the Cy Young Award, and led the Dodgers to a World Series championship.
He went on to win 203 games — more than any of the 194 pitchers drafted ahead of him in 1979 — and has remained a popular figure in Los Angeles, where he played 12 of his 18 big league seasons and has spent the past the past six years as a Dodgers broadcaster.
From afar, Hershiser has always struck me as a decent guy.
A guy with a great story to share who in different circumstances could have been a perfect champion for — and national face of — Bowling Green baseball.
But, clearly, it was not to be.
That’s perfectly fine.
It’s also too bad.
And, now, maybe too late.