At last, our national pastime's suit-and-tie season — from new-player press conferences to congressional hearings — gives way to actual Major League Baseball as ESPN's 10-game spring-training schedule opens with the Dodgers and Braves on Friday (1 pm/ET). Fifty years after leaving Brooklyn for L.A., the Dodgers are marked by more westward movement with the arrival of manager Joe Torre from the Yankees, outfielder Andruw Jones from the Braves and pitcher Hiroki Kuroda from Japan. In mid-March, the team leaves Vero Beach, Florida, for Arizona after 61 years in "Dodgertown." ESPN analyst Orel Hershiser, star of L.A.'s last World Series winner in 1988, gets us loosened up for spring.
TV Guide: What kind of impact will Joe Torre have in L.A.?
Orel Hershiser: It'll take Joe a little bit of time to get his arms around the players out there, but from everything I know from playing against him and covering him, he is a genuine human being who really understands people. The problem with the Dodgers last year was there was a gap between older veteran players and younger players, and I think Joe can bridge that gap.
TV Guide: In general, what's a pitching staff's main goal in March?
Hershiser: The biggest thing in spring that you look for is health in the last 10 days of training, because you know deep down you're going to use 17 to 19 pitchers throughout the year. And you don't want the competitive juices of the players to take over too soon, when their bodies aren't ready for it. The biggest guys that are at risk are the ones who come into camp to win a job, the borderline veterans and the young guys.
TV Guide: What's spring training like for all the pitchers coming off injury?
Hershiser: For someone who spent the off-season in rehab, sometimes you can empty the tank thinking there's this "due date" of opening day, and then your body is worn out once you get into the season. Then there's a guy like [the New York Mets'] Pedro Martinez, who spent an off-season getting ready for spring training instead of rehabbing, so he's going to feel like this is a breath of fresh air. That's why spring training is six weeks long, for the starting pitchers to add an inning every outing. If it were up to regular players, they'd make spring about three weeks.
TV Guide: What are your thoughts on two top relievers who are switching to the rotation: the Yankees' Joba Chamberlain (in the summer) and Philly's Brett Myers?
Hershiser: I think we can always go back and make Joba a reliever, because he proved he can do that, but starters are such a rare commodity, especially at the level at which he looks like he can pitch. He's the real deal because every one of his pitches is hard to hit, even when you know it's coming. I'm really surprised in Myers, because he sold it to us that closing is what he wanted to do, but if you know the young man, you know he'll do anything for his team; and if you know him in another way, you know he can change focus in a heartbeat.
TV Guide: A lot of starters are only asked to go six or seven innings these days. Whatever happened to the complete game?
Hershiser: There are so many factors in the game as to why they only go six or seven.... Seven innings today is the equivalent of a complete game of yesteryear. They've taken so much foul territory away from the field. So now any ball hit into the first six or so rows is out of play and it goes back to the pitcher's hand and the batter's still standing at the plate. Every time you see that, add a third of an inning to the game. We really play probably 11- or 10.5-inning games. Balls barely clear the fence, the balls are tighter, the strike zone's smaller, and the hitters are stronger.
TV Guide: Can Hiroki Kuroda do as well as Daisuke Matsuzaka with the Red Sox last year?
Hershiser: I think we're really getting to a point now where we can project Japanese players a little bit better because we've seen so many come over to the U.S. Management is having an easier time saying, "He did this in Japan and our scouts are saying this about him, so we can project him." They say Kuroda's got a sinker and a splitter and keeps the ball down. Matsuzaka's biggest problem was living with the high fastball, but over here our strike zone is a little tighter, so he didn't get away with that. If this kid already pitches at the knees, that's a good sign for projecting him.
TV Guide: What's your sense for how fans will treat active players mentioned in the Mitchell report?
Hershiser: There are so many facets of this. I think some fans want the game clean and want to know what they're watching is true and real, but they also want to move on. Other fans say, "I don't care what they do, I like to watch them hit and throw and run really well." But there are so many different places you can have your opinion from. There are fans, there are players of yesteryear, players who just retired, current players, management, Congress.... When you give an opinion, it's going to be wrong because there are so many people looking at this from so many different perspectives. I'll have 10 seconds for a sound bite, but that's no time to explain it from every person's angle.
TV Guide: How do you feel about the Dodgers moving out of Vero Beach?
Hershiser: It's going to be very, very sad for me. In 1978, my parents drove the coast of Florida and chose Vero Beach to stay. In 1979, I was drafted by the L.A. Dodgers. So from then on, it was a family reunion every spring. My parents still live there, and anytime you drive around Vero, you immediately think this is Dodgers spring training, not about the beach or restaurants or village shops. You think, "I'm in Dodgertown." A lot of restaurants would break even all year and then make money those six weeks. Fortunately for them, there are a few other things going on.
For a complete list of ESPN's spring-training schedule, check out our Sports Report.
Watch for more of Orel Hershiser this spring on ESPN's Baseball Tonight and as one of three celebrity entrants in the field of 64 on NBC's National Heads-Up Poker Championship.
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