This annotated week in baseball history: Feb. 3-Feb. 9, 1979

As you might have figured out when I wrote a whole article about Mike Stanton last year, I have always been a little bit taken with the all-time games pitched record. I don’t know why. The games pitched record isn’t, of course, the games played record. (Since that begs the question, the all-time leader in that category is Pete Rose.)

What makes the record so intriguing might be its current holder, Jesse Orosco, who pitched more or less forever and by the end of his career had been on a third of the teams in baseball.

In fact, there are a lot of ways to observe just how long Orosco was in the major leagues. In addition holding to the games record, Orosco was among the five oldest players in the league every year from 1996 until his retirement. From 1999 on, he was the oldest player in his league; in 2003, he was the oldest player in both leagues.

When Orosco retired, his career was longer than the entire history of four franchises: Colorado, Florida, Arizona and Tampa Bay. He had been in professional baseball as long as two others, Seattle and Toronto, had existed.

The first season of Orosco’s career was Ozzie Smith’s second. In that year, Ozzie hit .211 and made 20 errors. By the final season of Orosco’s career, Smith would be a 15-time All-Star, win more Gold Gloves at shortstop than anyone else, retire, wait five years, and be elected to the Hall of Fame.

Finally, if baseball comparisons don’t do it for you, there are always world comparisons. Orosco pitched during the terms of five U.S. presidents. He also outlasted four Soviet leaders. Cambodia went from being Democratic Kampuchea to the People’s Republic of Kampuchea to the State of Cambodia before at last settling on the Kingdom of Cambodia.

What kept him in the league for so long? At the most basic, Orosco was a good pitcher. His career ERA+ still ranks in the top 75 all-time. In the 24 years he pitched, Orosco had an ERA+ below league average in just five of them, and never consecutively.

More specifically, Orosco, a southpaw, was just death on lefties. For his career, he reduced lefties to a .209/.287/.301 line. In 1983, he faced lefties 116 times and surrendered just four extra base hits, all doubles. In 1997—at age 40—he was even better, allowing just eight hits in 79 at-bats. Even in 2003, when Orosco had a 7.75 ERA, lefties still hit just .231 off him.

He also dominated some of the greatest left-handed hitters of all-time, reducing them to lines that would make a pitcher blush. Barry Bonds—whom Orosco faced more than any other lefty—hit .143 off Orosco and had more strikeouts than hits. Wade Boggs hit .160 and never touched him for an extra base hit. Fred McGriff reached base just six times in 25 tries, while David Justice could manage that only twice in 11 plate appearances.

When Orosco was young, he relied primarily on his fastball, along with a hard slider, to retire batters. By the time he hit 40, however, much of Orosco’s velocity had vanished and he began to rely extensively on his slider. When his slider began to fail him, Orosco switched to a forkball type pitch.

Orosco’s long career had more to it than sheer length. His best season came in 1983, when he pitched 110 innings for the Mets with a 1.47 ERA. Despite not starting a game, Orosco led the teams in wins with 13. For good measure, he also led in saves and winning percentage.

While 1983 was unquestionably Orosco’s best year, 1986 is the one he should look back on most fondly. That season Orosco and Roger McDowell formed a two-headed lefty/righty combination at the back end of the Mets bullpen. Their collective line: 22-15, 43 saves, 2.75 ERA in 208 innings.

The Mets ran roughshod over the National League and met the Astros in the NLCS. That is possibly the greatest championship series ever played; the Mets finally won in six games. The Mets spent most of the series complaining to anyone and everyone that Mike Scott was throwing a spitball, but could produce no evidence.

Orosco was a key player in the series, winning three games, the first time a reliever had accomplished such a feat. In Game 6, running on fumes, Orosco nearly blew the Mets’ lead—which would’ve doomed them to another game facing the unhittable Scott—but struck out Kevin Bass to win the series.

In the World Series, Orosco recorded two saves and actually pitched much better, not giving up a run. Once again, he was on the mound when the Mets recorded their victory, again ending the series with a strikeout. The video of Orosco throwing his glove high into the air as he was swallowed up by first his teammates and then the Shea Stadium crowd is a classic.

Orosco would have a less dramatic but equally successful run in the 1988 playoffs with the Dodgers. He was part of the Orioles teams that couldn’t get over the hump during the mid-1990s, and thereafter entered the journeyman phase of his career.

As the seasons pass, Orosco’s games record is in serious jeopardy. Stanton needs to pitch in only 75 games to take the record; he has beaten that total in two of the past four seasons.

However, even if Orosco does someday surrender the games record, to Stanton or someone else, he is unlikely to be forgotten. Orosco’s career was far more than just appearing in many games, and his legacy will survive.

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