From 400 feet away bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks saw Ray Miller's left-hand gesture. It was 9: 53 p.m., time for Jesse Orosco to face history.
Almost four months after his 42nd birthday and more than 20 years after his major-league debut, Orosco last night set the major-league record for appearances by a pitcher, breaking a tie with Dennis Eckersley with his 1,072nd career outing.
He faced one hitter and on two pitches earned a "hold," a statistic not yet manufactured when Orosco left Santa Barbara Community College after being drafted in 1978 by the Minnesota Twins.
The moment meant much more to Orosco than personal accomplishment. True, it represented the reference point for his distinguished 21-year career but its power was enhanced by what it signified for his largely unappreciated middle relief role, the managers such as George Bamberger, Doc Edwards and Davey Johnson who had helped mold his career, and his family. Not only a marker for his career, the record represents a keepsake unlikely to be challenged for decades, if ever.
"It brings emotions out. You try to relax but it's not easy," said Orosco.
For the first six innings, Orosco's mother, Tomasa, watched last night from behind home plate with her granddaughters, Natalia and Alyssa, and daughter-in-law Leticia. Orosco's 12-year-old son, little Jesse, served as bat boy and sat beside Miller. Two sisters and a brother watched from their California homes.
In a perfect world, the Orioles would have opened their homestand on Monday, Orosco would have pitched and his appearance would have served as a powerful remembrance of his father, who died on Aug. 16 at 54. "They were close very close," recalled Tomasa Orosco. "He was a pitcher, too. Right-handed. He and Jesse did so much together."
More than 30 years ago the elder Orosco served as a player-manager for the semi-pro Santa Barbara Jets. His son would keep score. On work days the father would come home from his construction job exhausted but still with enough energy to play catch with his son.
Orosco had hoped to set the record on Aug. 16, the anniversary of his father's death. A day's delay did nothing to reduce the memory.
"I thought about him out there," Orosco said. "He was with me."
The perfect situation found Orosco: two outs and none on in the seventh inning as he followed Jim Corsi to protect Mike Mussina's 4-3 lead. He faced left-handed-hitting Todd Walker, the Twins second baseman who last season ranked among the league's top five hitters.
Aware of the emotion attached, Miller hoped any pomp and circumstance would be delayed until after Orosco appeared. No way, Ray. As soon as Orosco stepped through the center-field gate, a massive "1,072" flashed on the matrix, bringing a Camden Yards crowd of 40,485 to its feet. Outfielders Albert Belle, Brady Anderson and B.J. Surhoff intercepted him with congratulations. When Orosco reached the mound, Miller gave him instructions; his infielders offered him handshakes.
"I had to wait for all the handshakes just to tell him to get the guy out," quipped Miller.
"You just try to keep your composure as you go on. I tried to do the best I could do," Orosco said. "I can imagine what Cal [Ripken] went through. He's got iron veins."
A life's work plus two pitches and it was over.
After running a fastball inside against Walker, Orosco got the inning's third out on a fly ball just shy of the center-field warning track.
Miller turned to little Jesse and said: "You want to do something neat? Why don't you run out to your dad."
And Orosco's son sprang from the dugout to greet his father, patting him on his stomach in return for a hug. Orosco called the gesture "the greatest thing in the world." Orosco embraced Miller, shook several more hands, then moved to the seats usually held by Cal Ripken's family but on this night provided to Orosco's family.
Wanting badly to share the moment, Orosco approached Miller in St. Petersburg last week about postponing No. 1,072 until the Orioles returned to Camden Yards -- a small request on a team going nowhere. Having tied Eckersley the night before, Orosco warmed on Sunday in Cleveland, threatening Tomasa's travel plans. However, his presence was never needed in a 5-1 loss.
"I wanted to be here very much to see him," Tomasa Orosco said. "To me, this is a very big thing. I am so proud of him. This might be his last year pitching or his next-to-last year. It means very much to all of us."
King of the hill
The Orioles' Jesse Orosco last night took his place atop the rest for most games pitched:
Jesse Orosco 1,072
Dennis Eckersley 1,071
Hoyt Wilhelm 1,070
Kent Tekulve 1,050
Lee Smith 1,022
Rich Gossage 1,002
Lindy McDaniel 987
Rollie Fingers 944
Gene Garber 931
Cy Young 906
Pub Date: 8/18/99