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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

"He's special," said bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks. "He's very resilient. He takes less time to warm up and less time to recover. He's taken good care of himself. None of this is an accident. Give him the ball, tell him to crank it up and watch him go."

If Eckersley was baseball's renaissance pitcher, then Orosco is its best example of postmodernism.

Orosco has neither served as his team's primary closer nor averaged an inning per appearance since 1989. In a game in which strategy is now largely dictated by computer printouts and managers rarely deviate from left-vs.-left and right-vs.-right late-inning matchups, Orosco embodies the age of specialization.

"Jesse's a pretty unique guy. He's created a niche for himself and has been effective at it for years," said Orioles manager Ray Miller. "The thing is, he's looked upon mostly to get left-handed hitters out. But for a large part of his career, he's been more effective against right-handers."

Orosco isn't a man for all seasons. It just seems that way. Former Orioles reliever Alan Mills fondly wonders about the "old Indian" and teammates needle him about what it was like to face Honus Wagner and Babe Ruth.

But two decades ago there would have been no room for Orosco. The advent of 11- and 12-man staffs and the evaporation of complete games fostered an era conducive to his role.

The pitching mound will be a crowded place the day Orosco slips past the finger-pointing Eckersley. He said the moment will be dedicated to the legions who also have worked in the relative obscurity of middle relief; to former managers George Bamberger, Doc Edwards and Davey Johnson, who helped sculpt and then restore his career; to his hundreds of teammates, past and present; and especially to his mother and late father, who cultivated his love of baseball.

"You like to leave something behind," he said. "Even if you're fortunate enough like I've been to play on some great teams with some great players, you like to leave your name on something. My kids and my wife can see this even when I'm not playing anymore. To me, that has a lot of meaning."

Even more so given that Orosco survived two professional crises to get here. In 1990, he thought he saw the end while with Cleveland. "I was on a two-year contract and I wasn't pitching anymore. I just sat there for most of the season. It was very dim," he said.

A trade to the Milwaukee Brewers saved him, but the players' strike in 1994 nearly shoved him into retirement.

At 37, he was faced with attending a free-agent tryout in Homestead, Fla., or retirement. Finally, the Orioles offered him a contract for $400,000, a significant drop from his previous $1.1 million salary, but enough to extend his career for at least another five seasons.

Regardless of the Orioles' fourth-place standing and his own first-half difficulties, this is a fun time for Orosco. For one more night, at least, it will be October 1986 all over again.

Hopefully, at Camden Yards in front of those who matter most, Orosco will feel the butterflies, make his pitch, then call for the ball. Free of anonymity, his name will go atop a list under construction for 130 years.

Orosco at 42

Mileposts in Jesse Orosco's career

January 1978: Signs with Minnesota Twins

Dec. 8, 1978: Traded to the New York Mets to complete deal for Jerry Koosman

April 22, 1979: Gains first ML win, beating Philadelphia Phillies ace Steve Carlton.

June 17, 1979: Returned to Triple-A Tidewater

1981: Converted to bullpen after making 10 starts in Triple-A.

Sept. 18, 1981: Secures first ML save one week after being promoted from Tidewater.

1982: Leads Mets with 54 appearances, most in middle relief.

1983: Named to first All-Star team and finishes third in Cy Young Award balloting; led NL with 13 relief wins and comes within one victory of Tom Seaver's club-record 10 straight wins.

1984: Named to second All-Star team; saves career-high 31 games.

1985: Splits closer role with Roger McDowell.

July 22, 1986: Plays right field after trading places with McDowell and records a putout.

October, 1986: Wins three games and saves two in postseason as Mets defeat Red Sox in seven-game World Series, their first world championship since '69.

Oct. 27, 1986: Records final out of Mets' clinching, 8-5 win.

May 26, 1987: Saves 100th game, the first Met to do so.

Dec. 11, 1987: Traded to the Oakland Athletics, and then to Los Angeles Dodgers in a three-team swap.

October 1988: Dodgers win World Series over Athletics. Orosco does not appear.

Dec. 3, 1988: Signs as free agent with Cleveland Indians.

July 14, 1989: Earns first AL win against Detroit Tigers.

1989: His 2.08 ERA is lowest by Indians reliever since Vincente Romo in 1968.

1990: John McNamara becomes fourth Indians manager in four seasons. Orosco appears in at least 50 games for ninth consecutive season and makes 500th career appearance.

Dec. 6, 1991: Traded to Milwaukee Brewers for cash.

May 23, 1992: Earns first save in more than two years vs. New York Yankees.

1993: Works as Brewers closer in second half, at one point compiling 20-inning scoreless run.

1994: Players strike coincides with his free agency. He contemplates retirement.

April 8, 1995: Signs with Orioles as free agent for $400,000.

1995: Leads AL in appearances (65); opponents bat a career-low .169 against him.

April 19, 1996: Allows eight earned runs in one-third inning against Texas Rangers.

1997: At 41, he makes career-high 71 appearances.

Aug. 2, 1997: Records career strikeout No. 1,000 vs. Oakland's Jason Giambi.

October, 1997: Makes four scoreless postseason appearances as Orioles lose in second consecutive ALCS.

July 25, 1998: He makes 1,000th career appearance against Seattle Mariners, the sixth pitcher ever to do so.

Aug. 20, 1998: Signs two-year contract extension with a vesting option for 2001, leaving open the possibility of him pitching at 44.

June 25, 1999: Passes Kent Tekulve to become all-time leader in relief appearances.

Pub Date: 8/06/99

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