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A real ace

The Baltimore Sun

Twenty years ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Orel Hershiser put together one of the greatest seasons by a pitcher. In 1988, Hershiser was 23-8 with eight shutouts and a 2.26 ERA in the regular season and, in six postseason games, he threw nearly 43 innings, going 3-0 with a save and an ERA of 1.05.

So, two decades after winning the Cy Young Award and being the Most Valuable Player in the National League Championship Series and World Series, how does a competitor like Hershiser - Tom Lasorda called him "Bulldog" - get the competitive juices flowing?

How about glaring across a poker table at card sharks such as Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson?

Hershiser - who is still very much a part of baseball as an analyst for ESPN games and the College and Little League World Series - has been selected to play in the National Heads-Up Poker Championship at Caesars Palace starting Thursday and running to March 2.

This is the fourth year for the tournament and it will be on NBC during six consecutive Sundays beginning April 13. The total prize money is $1.5 million - $500,000 to the winner.

The former pitcher's inclusion is something of a surprise. The heads-up event, which mimics the NCAA basketball tournament by starting with a field of 64 playing one-on-one until there's just one left, has routinely sprinkled celebrities among the poker pros for TV appeal.

But Hershiser, unlike poker-playing show-biz types such as Don Cheadle and Shannon Elizabeth, hasn't been associated with big-time poker.

"I've been playing for a few years now, ever since the poker TV craze, and more so since I moved to Las Vegas," Hershiser said.

"PokerStars.net heard about me," he added, "and said they'd sponsor me."

PokerStars is the Internet poker site that helped launch former World Series of Poker Main Event champions Chris Moneymaker and Greg Raymer.

The heads-up tournament will be Hershiser's first trip to the deep end of the poker pool. Mostly, he said, he plays low-stakes no-limit Texas hold 'em cash games at his neighborhood casino, Red Rock, and occasional daily tournaments at the Venetian and the Bellagio.

In his baseball days, card playing was a common time-killer, Hershiser said. Long flights meant long sessions of nickel-dime hearts. But poker approximates the competitive culture of athletics, he said, and the skills he honed on the mound come in handy at the table.

"First of all, there's the control you need to have over your emotions, no matter what's going on," he said.

"Then there's the strategy of dealing with what you have. Some days, you may not have your 90-mph fastball, and you may have to rely on your slider and your changeup," Hershiser said. "Well, in poker, you have to play with the cards you're dealt, so that means adjusting your game accordingly - and adjusting your game relative to whom you're playing against."

In baseball, some of the variables were playing surface and weather. In poker, some variables are the changing cards in play and even a player's position in the betting sequence.

"Plus, it's that you're competing and keeping score," he said. "When I first started pitching, I'd go over at-bats and innings in my mind, keep track of what I did in certain situations. Here, I go over certain hands, the decisions I made, even the comments at the table. ... It's the same process."

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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